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Is liberal faith and spirituality credibly Mormon?

August 31, 2014

A week ago, James Olson wrote a post at Times and Seasons summarizing many of the arguments for and against the treatment of women at the church. The purpose of this “dialectical mapping” was to align people with the most current iterations/rounds of the arguments, rather than having people repeat the points of rounds long since finished.

I think the most interesting thing that happened in this discussion was that very early on, there was pushback in the comments about James’s bias. In particular, several commenters believed that James weakly summarized the final responses of the nonfeminist side. Commenter SilverRain (among others) pointed out that the problem is that James’s entire endeavor to present the arguments intellectually misses that the sides don’t rely on the same premises. As she wrote:

The reason “AA” doesn’t have a great response to you is because you have set a battleground upon which she cannot win. Then, you assume that she has no ability to win.

In other words, participation in the Church is predicated upon faith in its basic principles (God the Father, Christ, the Spirit, personal revelation, God’s authority via the priesthood, the efficacy of priesthood ordinances, etc: ie. that the Church is true.) Without a testimony in those things, the “FF” arguments try to persuade on the battleground of intellect. But AA has no interest in fighting on that battleground. It doesn’t mean she CAN’T (after all, there are many people who do just that in apologetics, and they generally have good points even if you don’t accept them.) It means that she shouldn’t. That’s just not the battleground on which we have been asked to fight.

and, in a later comment:

One last thought: these kinds of posts illustrate quite effectively the major problems between the two schools of thought.

Those who believe in the Church’s claims of authority have really only one answer: I have searched, prayed, and received a testimony. You can, too.

But if someone is determined not to gain a testimony, or if they devalue spiritual sources of information, they will never receive that witness. These sorts of posts are like throwing a gauntlet into someone’s lap: prove it, or I won’t believe. By design, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and in His Church cannot be proven. It is intended to be unprovable. That is why it is faith.

Ultimately, their belief and lack thereof will rest only in their own laps. Those who believe are not called to convert, but to testify. Conversion is solely between the individual and the Spirit, and ultimately it will be to God an individual must answer. Judgment as to whether or not they have reached for knowledge from God in every way they can is up to God, temporarily those He has designated, and no one else. All we can do is shrug and say, “I don’t know why you haven’t felt it, but I have.”

That’s not a non-answer, it just isn’t the answer you want.

I believe that SilverRain was on to something, but I wanted to find out further. I for one do think that many progressive Mormon folks on the internet “intellectualize” issues far often, and so conservative answers that aren’t intellectualized don’t seem compelling.

However, I was not so sure about what I perceived to be implications of SilverRain’s comments. For example, I don’t think that liberal Mormons lack a testimony, or that support for, say, women’s ordination, cannot be grounded in faith and spirituality.

So I asked a few questions

I am somewhat intrigued by the counter framing of intellectual vs spiritual. But this raises a question to my mind: Can a liberal have a testimony or spiritual witness in favor of women’s ordination? Or by definition, is the liberal relying on secular or intellectual arguments that are out of alignment with Heaven/God?

In other words, is support for women’s ordination solely the purview of folks who have not received a sufficiently testimony of eternal matters re: this issue?

My initial impression is to copy and paste the back and forth between SilverRain (and even if you don’t want to read the post and all its comments, I do think it would be helpful for you to read SilverRain’s comments), but I’ll post one comment she had posted in response to the following question of mine:


Is there any conceivable way that someone could have a testimony that the church should — in any respect, or on any issue — not be the same as it currently is, without running into the points you have raised?

Also, can someone believe have a testimony that the church should change (on any particular issue, not just the ones of this post) while recognizing that they do not have authority to change the Church?

From SilverRain:


My best analogy at the moment is this: imagine we have, as members, all boarded a ship called the USS Mormon. We have been baptized (boarded,) perhaps accepted other covenants. We have enjoyed the amenities on board. Some of us seem in first class suites, others in 3rd class (perhaps like myself, as a single mother and divorcee, along with others who don’t quite fit in.) But we all got on the ship. We can also get off the ship at any time. There are dozens of other ships within swimming distance, some of which even have little lifeboats docked on our sides waiting to take people off.

Let’s say one of us has some concerns with the direction the ship is going, or with the quality of food available. Obviously, there are dozens of scenarios in this analogy that could be likened to what goes on in the Church, but since this is just a comment and not a blog post, I’ll skip right to a few options:

1) Send messages to the Captain. This is like prayer and fasting.
2) Try to communicate to the first mate who, since he is very busy executing the orders of the captain, has set up a system of communication so only the appropriate problems are escalated to him. This is the line of authority via bishops, etc.
3) Keep quiet and let it go.
4) Advertise the incompetency of the first mate to other passengers and ships, in hopes that they and the other passengers on the ship will support you in an effort to convince the first mate of error.
5) Get off the ship and build your own ship.
6) Get off the ship and join another ship, or no ship at all.
7) Try to take over the ship yourself.

The “liberal” stand leans towards 4, generally feeling like 1-3 are not effective and, for whatever reason, not wanting to go to 5-7. It goes without saying that 1-3 still support the authority of the first mate and believes the Captain’s orders are still being executed. The rest are a vote of no confidence in the first mate. I, personally, think that 3 can also be a vote of no confidence in some circumstances.

But you cannot, by definition, do 4-7 and still claim to believe that the first mate is acting under direction of the Captain. You cannot seek to undermine the authority of the Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ and still claim to believe in that authority. Not without displaying incredible lack of integrity.

The only “middle ground” I see is to believe that the ship is a nice ship, going in more or less the right direction, but with a few tweaks it could be perfect. Basically, to not believe that the ship is intrinsically any different from other ships, maybe just has a better color of deck paint, or it offers a better selection of hors d’oeuvres. But for those of us who believe that the ship is something different, who truly believe that the Captain is giving orders, and passionately believe in the mission of the ship, such people who seek to change it in ways that undermine the first mate’s job of communicating the Captain’s orders threaten the very nature of the ship they boarded. It seeks to undermine the very reason most of them boarded in the first place: because they truly believe it is being steered by the Captain through the first mate.

Not a perfect analogy, but it’s the best I have right now.

So yes, it is possible to believe the Church should change and still recognize that one hasn’t the authority to change the Church. But it requires trusting an imperfect person (the first mate) to do his best to steer the ship, and trusting the Captain to intervene with him if necessary. It also depends on the passengers trusting that their messages to the Captain are being read and understood, that He cares about them and their needs, and can communicate those needs when the established line of authority fails. It requires patience, long-suffering, kindness…in short, charity.

I certainly had questions in response to this analogy, but I found it to be a very good analogy to work with. For me, it seems that the fact that liberal Mormons are hesitant to do 5, 6, or 7 speaks to something. (A something, I will add, that often astounds and confuses disaffected Mormons: if liberals don’t like how things are run, why do they stay?)

Still, one point that SilverRain raised later on (have you read the comments yet???) is that one big deciding factor is whether an activist will go public. I think she most poignantly put it here:

Let me put it this way: there are many, many people who are inspired to talk to the leadership about problems they see in the Church. They are acting with patience, charity, humility, respect, and deference. You can know that because you don’t know their names. They did not choose to organize in the public eye and use that to try to force behavior from the leadership.

That is the meaningful difference, John. You don’t know their names. Of those few activists in history whose names you know, (like Darius Gray,) you know them not because they set themselves up in opposition to the Church and demanded change, but because of their efforts elsewhere.

People possessed of the Spirit of God do not garner attention to themselves. If they get attention, it is in spite of their desires, not because of them.

From reading SilverRain and others’ comments, I got a sense of how “conservative” faith and spirituality might differ from “liberal” faith and spirituality, in such a way that “liberals” would often be seen as disloyal, faithless, and not based in spiritual precepts.

However, my bigger question is this: is the liberal way of expressing faith and spirituality still credibly Mormon? Is the excommunication of Kate Kelly decisive for this question?

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  1. Parker permalink

    Since, to some extent, we are looking at your question through SilverRain’s comments I need for you to help me with a couple of her comments. She says, “By design, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his Church cannot be proven. It is intended to be unprovable. That is why it is faith.” On the other hand she says that one can have a testimony of the truth claims of the Church. “I have searched, prayed, and received a testimony. You can too.”

    Those positions seem like polar opposites to me, but I am open to be shown how they aren’t. The reason I think it important to acknowledge a difference, or to show there is no difference, is that each position suggests a range of different “spiritual” possibilities. That is, mystery opens the door for many possibilities; whereas, a specific answer that validates the first mate, (to use SilverRain’s analogy) narrows the possibilities.

  2. Parker,

    Hmm, I am hoping that SilverRain will stop by to comment, but I don’t know if she follows this blog, and I don’t think I have any other way of reaching her. But let me try to address your request for help.

    As I understand it, what SilverRain is saying with “By design, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his Church cannot be proven. It is intended to be unprovable. That is why it is faith.” is that the reason that the two “sides” (not trying to reify that there are only “two” sides though) don’t really see eye to eye is because the “liberal” side wants intellectual arguments, whereas the arguments of the “conservative” side (of faith) are not amenable to intellectual argumentation because (insert quote here: by design, faith cannot be proven.)

    The only way you can “get on board” with the faith arguments is not by hashing it out with proofs and intellectual style arguments (although, as SR notes, some people do try to do this, which is basically the work of apologists), but by searching, praying, and receiving a testimony.

    Ultimately, this isn’t going to be very satisfying to people who are looking for an intellectual-style proof, though.

    I don’t know if this also addresses your second paragraph. Not exactly sure what you’re trying to say there, but if I am getting what you’re saying, then I would say something like, yeah, the big question is whether spirituality involves a specific answer, or if it can involve a range of possibilities. For example, if the ultimate spiritual position is, “I don’t know why you haven’t felt it, but I have,” then it seems like someone else with an opposing viewpoint could have a same feeling and say the same thing.

  3. Parker, The way SilverRain’s comments would be consistent is if one doesn’t see a spiritual witness as proof.

  4. Parker permalink

    David, say a little more about that.

    Andrew, I did go to the original post and tried to follow SilverRains comments, but frankly after a bit it became too convoluted for me spend much time with it. I will make two or three random comments that occurred to me as I read her (and some of the other) comments (and they aren’t necessarily new with those comments).

    It is good, I guess, that the Church has people were the spirit is so audible that they recognize the untestimonied when they see them.

    There was a time in the Church (see missionary pamphlets of years ago) when logic and reason were considered essential partners to the Spirit.

    The liberal/conservative dichotomy doesn’t make much sense to me. What I see is those who focus entirely upon the source, and others who feel that substance is equally important. The latter are people who continue to think that reason, logic, and spirit are neither enemies or spiritually mutually exclusive.

    There are those who think that the Lord has who he wants in leadership positions, and what they say, and what they do is precisely what the Lord wants. Anyone who questions that really does not have a testimony (and are, as far as I can determine, the liberals of the Church, in this dichotomy).

    My answer to your question regarding the credibility of “liberal” faith and spirituality, is that, in general, “no”, it isn’t. It seems that the paradigm of low tolerance for ambiguity increasingly defines the Church. In that sense, I have to say there is a conservative aspect to the Church– a determined effort to conserve a particular story and a particular point of view.

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