I recently read a fascinating Dialogue article that I want to discuss. It is titled The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology, written by Lavina Fielding Anderson, who I greatly respect. In this article, she lists chronologically events and circumstances in which members of the LDS intellectual community received ecclesiastical, employment, or other discipline for their participation in Mormon scholarship and thought up through January 1993.
I found many striking similarities and observations that really resonate with my experience with the LDS intellectual community thus far and will share some of my insights here:
1. I’m constantly moved by the overwhelming level of belief in “questioning groups.” A survey in spring of 1984 of Dialogue readers showed that 88% attended church every Sunday or most Sundays. Over two-thirds said they accept the Book of Mormon as a historical record, and 47% said they feel they should go along with policies even if they disagree with them, with 10% accepting it “on faith” and 37% disagreeing but complying.
This is consistent with the survey I conducted here of YMF readers, which showed that 82% of YMF readers self-identified as believing or somewhat believing, and 74% said they were active members. Considering that while the church does not release attendance statistics, the average rate of attendance is usually no more than 50%, it is interesting to note that at least these two progressive Mormon communities are more active, faithful, or believing than is so often negatively ascribed to them.
I think this is really important to note. So often these intellectual communities are discouraged and mischaracterized as havens for ex-Mormons who hate the church and want to besmirch its name. But all available data shows that participants are on the contrary more active as a group than the general church membership itself. Linda Newell speaks very powerfully to this point:
It’s one thing to know who your enemies are. But it’s quite another thing to label as an enemy church members who love the church, who work in the church, who pay their tithing, who go to the temple, and who only want to help the church.
I am not saying the only people in the LDS intellectual community are those who identify as active and faithful. But I am saying that continuing to allow the perception of the LDS intellectual community to be full of anti-sentiment and bent on destroying the church is wholly inaccurate, and there’s more hard evidence than just our opinions.
2. A repeated refrain from ecclesiastical leaders as documented in this Dialogue article is that scholars who study Mormon history and write about Mormonism for publications in the LDS intellectual community will be led astray from their studies. Their testimonies will be ravaged, and they will certainly fall into apostasy. I think this is a valid concern.
Anyone who has had a faith transition knows that grappling with your testimony is unlike any other mental or emotional crises. It rips into the core of your being as you come face to face with your worldview, your beliefs about the purpose of life and goodness, and your relationship with deity. These are not things to be taken lightly.
But benevolent protection from these experiences only denies the faithful the opportunity to go through the refiner’s fire, to discover who they really are and what they stand for, and to experience the entirely individual satisfaction of a search for truth. As agents, we do not (or at least should not) shy away from the obligation to search, ponder, and pray, as well as to speak boldly our own consciences.
3. I was intrigued to notice an ongoing pattern in the experiences described in the article. Consistently, those who were called in to meet with an ecclesiastical leader (almost always the bishop or stake president) were told that the instruction to call them in had come from a higher-up authority. Many, many local leaders expressed confidence in the member and their testimony, and many members of the intellectual community who were called in by local leaders described the meeting as “cordial.” Some local leaders even affirmed the member’s efforts to participate in Mormon scholarship, and some prayerfully chose to ignore restrictions higher-up authorities had placed on that member’s ability to receive a temple recommend or hold a certain calling and instead moved forward with those steps with the member. The vast majority of the meetings that were confrontational or resulted in further discipline were between a member and a leader who had never met previously.
I have had a similar experience though in a difference context. I have never been called in to meet with any ecclesiastical, work, or academic authorities over my participation in the LDS intellectual community, blogosphere, or my participation with Ordain Women. But consistently, when I post something on facebook or discuss Mormon scholarship with people, it is only the people who do not know me personally who take issue with what I say. I have never had someone who is close to me and who has talked with me about matters of faith and scholarship express the same concerns and dismay that those who do not know me convey. Though certainly there are those close to me who greatly disagree and would rather I did not participate in this community, they know me well enough to know that I never seek to tear down the church or hinder its progress, and they know my writings and advocacy come from a place of searching for truth. It is only those who do not know me personally or only know me from a distance who fear for my eternal salvation and disparage my beliefs.
I find this instructive and meaningful to note for two reasons. The first is that ecclesiastical leaders should take the time to speak with those who they are instructed to or feel prompted to speak with and should do so with an open mind. Considering again that the vast majority of the LDS intellectual community is active and believing in some respect, it is a tragedy that so many meetings begin with a presumption of guilt and faithlessness that puts the onus on the member to prove their faithfulness instead of having the opportunity to openly express themselves. The second is that we should value our individual relationships with individuals and not deny them the opportunity to clarify their beliefs when we hastily assume or judge them for something they’ve said- this should go beyond simple our relationships with our ecclesiastical leaders and should apply to everyone.
4. I often see, as is noted in the Dialogue article, church leaders and members alike warning of Mormon scholarship because “contention is not of the Lord.” We’ve addressed this issue on this blog before, but I want to say it again- if contention is not of the Lord, what does it mean when God demonstrates righteous anger? Particularly throughout the Old Testament? I think that putting a blanket moratorium on anything that resembles “contention” places us squarely in a childlike non-confrontational state that denies our agency, opposition, and the real work to be done to promote goodness in this world. No social justice has ever come about from asking nicely from afar. We should not be so afraid of our convictions and the power of our beliefs that we sanitize our thoughts to fit someone else’s standard for fear of “contention.”
5. I just want to give a shoutout to whoever it was that prayed to “Our Father and Mother in Heaven” at commencement at BYU on April 5th, 1991. It was later that year in November that President Gordon B. Hinckley stated “I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to our Mother in Heaven.” His statement in context derives from his study that he finds no scriptural evidence of Christ praying to Heavenly Mother and thus by following the example of Christ, neither should we. I personally have found that there are a great many things that Christ did or did not do that I am fairly certain the General Authorities would not now advocate compliance with. This is not to invalidate President Hinckley’s statement, but it is to say that I don’t think any attempt at rationalization or justification can change the fact that no one should stand between a child of God and their communication with their Heavenly Parents.
6. Lastly, I want to express my appreciation and awe of the LDS intellectual community’s resilience in continuing forward with honest scholarship in the face of so much pressure. Their stories of pain and bitter separation and judgment stand as a witness to the existence of ecclesiastical spiritual abuse, which the Mormon Alliance documents.
I think it’s incredibly important as the community moves forward to remember its history- there is a legacy of Mormon scholars placing everything on the line for an honest search for truth and demonstration of their beliefs. These people do not take lightly the opportunity to do so and they largely deserve respect for continuing their scholarship in the face of such unjust treatment in many of their cases. I don’t know all the details and I know almost none of the individuals personally. But I have read their stories and other writings, and I look up to them as examples of people who consistently refused to go back on their beliefs, who valued their integrity more than an easy lie or dishonest redaction, and who continue to advocate for more Christlike communities within Mormonism.