There are 16 thoughts on “Ministering across Fault Lines of Belief and Community”.

  1. Towards the end in the “Committed Nonbelief” section, you attempt to explain why people like myself won’t fit within the community. I’m glad you wrote this section as I think it opens up a dialogue that I typically don’t hear discussed by apologists and I think any discussions along these lines are helpful. I am going to push back on some of your points here, because I think your conclusions aren’t satisfactory, but I do think you articulate some of the challenges that exists and I’m glad to have that discussion.

    I agree that it is a challenge to be in this role and to interact in the community. I also think your example about how expressing a strong non-belief can create tension in a church setting at times is a good example, and that it requires an artful way of conversing. However, I’m not sure this is unique to just the non-belief issue. I’ve experienced similar tensions in church settings when I’ve heard people express their divergent views on political issues, which aren’t supposed to be brought up at church, but do get expressed on occasion. I don’t think this dynamic of having tensions with other people is unique to exclusive authority, testimony or literal interpretations of atonement/resurrection. These tensions exist in every community, every family, every workplace on a number of different topics. Especially in America. We live in a diverse society, and we have to be adept at engaging with others of very different perspectives in respectful ways, even when we disagree very strongly on certain issues.

    The biggest problem I have with this section of you essay is you seem to miss what I think is an obvious possible solution which would be for orthodox members to open up their hearts and minds to the realization that if they want to stay in community with a large segment of our modern society (including close family members and friends), they are going to have to learn to not only interact with people like myself, but they are going to have to recognize that we aren’t inferior people. That we aren’t lacking in morals and that they might actually learn something good from us, rather than thinking we are lost or missing some key to happiness. In other words, orthodox members might try actually following the golden rule and the teachings of Jesus when he says to love your enemies. How do you love an enemy? You have to actually listen to them and take the time to try and understand their perspective. You don’t just say a silent prayer for their salvation, all the time thinking that your perspective is entirely superior to theirs, essentially having a strawman characterization of them in your mind. Try loving, try understanding, try learning from the good atheists and members of other belief systems. You might find that people like myself aren’t so bad, and that we don’t actually threaten your precious community so much that we can’t belong inside the tent.

    BTW, I’m an active participant in my ward on the Wasatch front, in case you’re wondering.

    • “The biggest problem I have with this section of you essay is you seem to miss what I think is an obvious possible solution which would be for orthodox members to open up their hearts and minds to the realization that if they want to stay in community with a large segment of our modern society (including close family members and friends), they are going to have to learn to not only interact with people like myself, but they are going to have to recognize that we aren’t inferior people. That we aren’t lacking in morals and that they might actually learn something good from us, rather than thinking we are lost or missing some key to happiness. In other words, orthodox members might try actually following the golden rule and the teachings of Jesus when he says to love your enemies. How do you love an enemy? You have to actually listen to them and take the time to try and understand their perspective. You don’t just say a silent prayer for their salvation, all the time thinking that your perspective is entirely superior to theirs, essentially having a strawman characterization of them in your mind. Try loving, try understanding, try learning from the good atheists and members of other belief systems. You might find that people like myself aren’t so bad, and that we don’t actually threaten your precious community so much that we can’t belong inside the tent.”

      Cameron,
      “Inferior people,” “lacking in morals,” “enemies,” and so forth- that is a blatant straw man, as is your example with politics. If a member of my ward says he thinks the current president has God’s approval, I definitely will voice a respectful disagreement, but at the end of the day I and most of the ward (ideally) will understand that this person is expressing a personal opinion on politics, inappropriate for the church environment.

      On the other hand, if a member of the ward says he felt the presence of his deceased wife while praying in the temple, and you raise your hand and say that you reject his testimony because it can’t be measured and validated by modern tools of neuroscience, you have both inflicted both a personal wound and defined yourself as one who rejects the experiential testimony of that community of believers. No one forces you to reject that man’s experiential testimony; it is entirely your choice to take an intellectual stand at variance with the community’s most deeply-held beliefs. In that situation, yes- trying to participate with a community that you choose to believe is founded in falsehood is definitely going to cause you discomfort. The community of believers has no power to make that discomfort go away. I have left several of my former belief communities for that reason.

      Notice how you envision the responsibility as resting entirely upon the “orthodox;” It is absolutely the obligation and opportunity of the community of believers to love nonbelievers fully and authentically. It is *not* the community’s obligation in any way to accept as valid a rival epistemology, or a rival set of beliefs. And as long as believing members of the church are speaking experiential testimony like the guy I referenced above, the church is not going to change its core beliefs that are being validated by those experiences.

      And to your last point- I grew up in Southern California, surrounded by people of other faiths. Even now, for various reasons, I probably spend more time among atheists and people of other faiths than I do among members of my faith. I’m currently on a work trip with a Buddhist friend of mine, and we have a no-questions-off-limits policy when we travel together. I love other belief systems and the people who adhere to them. But I would never, ever presume to apply my believing Latter-Day Saint epistemology to my Buddhist friend’s belief system or any other belief system. They have their own, and I fully honor and respect that.

      I’m glad to hear you are participating; I have friends who no longer believe, who are participating wonderfully at church. I just tell them to come to come to church with an open mind, and be willing to be surprised.

      • Dan,

        I wasn’t trying to setup a straw man when I used the phrases “lacking in morals” or “enemies” as I have heard similar terms used by members to describe atheists. Atheists have been decried for a long time by church leaders and members alike. This is common knowledge, and if you need me to provide some quotes, I’d be happy to bring these up as a reminder.

        Conversely, your story about someone publicly refuting and rejecting the testimony of another member who shares a testimony at church about feeling the presence of his deceased wife, sounds like the real straw man here. I’ve never heard of a story like that ever happening, and it really strains credibility. Nobody I know, who is a participating non-believer is attempting to run rough shod going around insulting people at church. So, we have actual condemnation and statements against non-believers like myself from the highest of church leaders on one side, and on the other side we have your exaggerated and unrealistic hypothetical.

        Now, I’m not putting the responsibility entirely on the orthodox, I think this is a multi-lane highway and all parties need to do their part. What I think is important to recognize is the studies by Jana Reiss and David’s survey as well. We have non-believers like myself attending church and we are already a segment of the community of active members. The way you’re trying to set boundaries on what is an acceptable kind of testimony is what I find quite problematic. That you’ve personally been through a faith crisis yourself concerns me even more, because people that understand the other side of disbelief should be the most charitable to the non-believer perspective, yet you’re trying to draw boundary lines and essentially exclude people like myself from the community. This is my church just as much as its yours. I have a strong tradition of pioneer heritage in my family, and I claim my place and I defy you or any others to push me out through whatever form of benevolent shunning you may assert in your article.

        The church’s core epistemology is constantly in a state of evolution, the ongoing restoration as Uchtdorf articulated, is happening, whether people like it or not. The broader trends of society, secular thinking, the rise of the none’s, the millennials disaffiliation with organized institutions, all of these things are happening and there isn’t a thing you or I can do to stop these waves of change that are sweeping across our culture. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. How do we treat those who are already a part of this community. Would you tell us that we don’t belong, that we aren’t authentic? Would you create exaggerated narratives to perpetuate stereotypes showing how we will cause undue conflict if our kind is allowed to coexist in the midst of people who have authentic testimonies. You say that you’re glad I’m participating after you’ve labeled me as different and incompatible. That’s a kind of welcome that I don’t really appreciate.

        Cameron

        • Cameron, I am not drawing any kind of boundary lines. Everyone belongs, except people who pose danger or are actively working at cross-purposes to the community. We the believers have obligations and opportunities in our interactions with nonbelievers, and nonbelievers have obligations and opportunities toward the community of believers. If I belong to a community oriented around a belief system and then I reject that belief system, it is not the community’s responsibility to validate my decision or make me feel okay with it in any way.

          The social trends you have identified (shown in Jana’s and David’s research) are real, but the church is under no obligation to modify its core doctrines in response. One of the constants in Judeo-Christian history is waves of generational disaffection and disaffiliation; this is not some singular occurrence that requires a rethinking of the truth claims of the church. The church’s only obligation to the world (and to each other) is to tell the truth the best we can, and respect the choices people make in response to that message.

          I would be interested to know how you see the church’s epistemology needing to evolve. Can you elaborate?

          • But you are drawing boundary lines and perpetuating stereotypes in the act of creating the categories. Labeling myself as a non-believer and yourself as a believer is the first part of the problem. The layers of belief among members of the church vary widely from person to person as shown in the aforementioned research. That is an entirely important point that needs to take precedence over ideas we discuss around how to interact with others. Everyone is essentially a cafeteria member to some degree or another, because everyone is a unique human with a unique perspective that can’t be duplicated. These categories are useful only as far as they help us understand human behaviors and broad trends, but they can become destructive if they are used to exclude or judge.

            I personally don’t think of myself as a non-believer, because I have many beliefs and I couldn’t possibly in my wildest dreams hope to base every decision I make on empirical evidence, no matter how hard I may try. There are also many decisions that fall into a completely separate category for evaluation. Religious experience, love, art, beauty, music, sports, exercise, family, friends, etc. I use my “beliefs” to help me interact with these extremely important areas of life, but it has much more to do with how I experience life in a subjective sense and doesn’t have much at all to do with how I view history or critical biblical scholarship.

            This is why I personally don’t think of the church in terms of true or false, that is the wrong question. No church is true or false, any more than a football team is true or false, or a political party, music group, state, race, gender, mission statement; none of these are true or false, that question doesn’t fit and even asking it sounds absurd. Can a specific claim about a historical event be evaluated for its likelihood of happening according to a particular interpretation of the evidence, yes, but to say the church is true using the traditional meaning of the word true make no sense.

            Is the church under obligation to modify its core doctrines? Obligation, no. Is the church modifying its core doctrines today, yes. President Nelson is a prime example of significant changes happening that are moving the needle on key issues in response to the environment. Change is constant, every church doctrine has seen significant changes from 1830 onward. The moment someone put an idea into writing it was old news almost as fast as computers become obsolete. This is the reality of what is already taking place in a dynamic environment. I don’t think your paradigm that things are solid and unchanging is accurate.

            The one thing I do agree with you on is the church does seem to have a roll in putting forth ideas (doctrines) that it believes are going to add value to this world and to its members. From my vantage point, the church is responding to the environment, and making changes as its members and the outside world respond back to it. I see it more like a dynamic feedback loop, rather than a one directional top/down exercise.

            As for epistemology, I would like to see leaders elaborate on what it means to learn line upon line. I would like to see some theologizing around that concept, incorporating the repentance process institutionally, and expounding on how infallible leaders frequently make mistakes and articulate how they come to that realization and what that means about inspiration and how humility plays an important role. I would like them to dial down the whole obedience mantra, and focus on what I see as the central message of the Christian movement which is grace, love, service, forgiveness, helping the marginalized and putting emphasis on trust in the God experience directly and not on authority figures and tradition.

  2. Blake and his son have discussed some of the material that he will present in his forthcoming volume on epistemology on his excellent Exploring Mormon Thought podcast, episodes 70 to 73. Well worth the listen.

  3. This was a good read and covered the subjects fairly well. I have one very minor disagreement with one small part of the Bushman quotation: “I agree with the facts of what people say, all those things did happen, so I don’t confute those things.” I assume this is talking about problems with church history.
    If what I see in the Salt Lake Tribune comments section on Latter-day Saints news stories and in the Reddit comment forums is an accurate indication, most critics actually have a very misinformed understanding of church history and doctrine. I rarely see an accurate truthful doctrinal statement or understanding shared in such locations. And most of the church history issues/episodes are poorly understood and related there as well.
    The rest of what is given in the Bushman quotation is dead-on accurate in my experience as well.

    • I agree with you to some extent here, Dennis. I don’t think Richard would concede many of the things that are taught in exmo reddit and similar places, but I think he would concede the numerous true things that trip people up because they don’t conform to the mental picture someone has created for church history (seer stones, anachronistic language and anonymous authorship of some books of scripture, etc.)

  4. Great review. I own the book but haven’t been able to get to it yet. I do wish, however, that Ostler had NOT included Fowler’s stages of faith. I feel Fowler is far more harmful than helpful with this stuff

    • Fowler is problematic in many ways, and I’m hoping a better, Latter-Day Saint-specific model emerges in the future.

      • The book Shaken Faith Syndrome has a Latter-day Saint specific model that I think works very well. And the Hafens in their book Faith is not Blind have a very similar one.

  5. Really appreciate this article, Dan. By seeking opportunities to respect the most cherished beliefs of others, we can live in greater harmony.

  6. Blake Ostler has a book on epistemology in the works. He has privately mentioned to me that it will be a full-bodied treatment of it.

    • Thanks for the heads up on this, Spencer. I think I reached out to Blake a while ago and bugged him about doing this, and I hope he is far along. This is a desperate need.

  7. Wonderfully written Dan. (And you even closed with a poem! That just gives me joy.)
    I almost feel like I have read the book by reading your assessment. I will certainly purchase this book.

    I think epistemology is incredibly helpful and I believe this book with be of great help too. I would encourage you to write a book on epistemology for how passionate you are on that subject. <3

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

All comments are moderated to ensure respectful discourse. It is assumed that it is possible to disagree agreeably and intelligently and comments that intend to increase overall understanding are particularly encouraged. Individual authors are given the option to disallow commenting or end commenting after a certain period at their discretion.

Close this window

Top of Page

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This