I Walk Imperfectly


Sat 11 February 2017 |

I'm a little embarrassed to write this, because I usually hate extended metaphors. I tend to skip right over them when reading others' writing. I'm hoping that you'll forgive my hypocrisy in making my own extended metaphor below.

Imagine there's a husband and wife, and the wife has started to notice some unsettling things. Sometimes she finds out that the husband wasn't where he said he was. Sometimes she notices him hiding messages on his phone. She asks him about it, but he says there's nothing going on, and that she's being disloyal by attacking him this way. Time passes, until one day he says "There may have been something going on with another woman." At this point, the wife is in panic. She wants, first of all, to know exactly what has happened. She has many questions:

  • Who was it?
  • What exactly did you do together?
  • When did it start?
  • How long did it go on?
  • Is it still going on?
  • Is she the only one?
  • Is there anything else you've been keeping from me?

In this moment of panic and despair, the wife needs facts in order to decide how she should feel and what she should do. If it was just a brief, non-physical flirtation then she'll be much less disturbed than if it was a long term sexual affair. Major life commitments rest on how he answers her questions.

Her husband now has to choose between two paths: repentance or defense. If he chooses repentance then he will immediately and completely answer her questions. He will apologize for the affair itself, for the dishonesty surrounding it, and for turning it back on her when she first confronted him about it. If he chooses this path, he may start to rebuild some of her trust in him.

On the other hand, if he chooses defense, he will give only partial or evasive answers. He will make excuses. He will look for ways to make her the bad guy. But while such a defense may salve his ego, it will doom their relationship. Rather than rebuilding trust, it will convince his wife that his behavior is likely to continue.

He might not be consistent in his choice. Some things he might confess only tentatively, waiting to see her reaction before he shares more. On his good days he might open up, be straight with her, and apologize. On his bad days he might give denials, blame, and more obfuscation.

You are probably already thinking through some parallels between this couple's situation and the church's situation today, but I'd like to list them explicitly in case there are some you've missed.

Many of us have given our lives to this church. We've given it our money in tithing and fast offerings. We've given it our time in meetings, callings, and missions. We've given it our minds in studying its doctrines, listening to its talks, and teaching its lessons. We've given it our will in obeying its rules about sabbaths, coffee, clothing, and sex. We've given it our privacy and intimate secrets as we've confessed our sins to our bishops. We've given it our self-worth, as we've struggled for years or decades believing that we did not measure up. We've given it our children, as we've taken them with us to church and set them on the path to give their lives to it too.

We've done this because we believed we were part of something extraordinary: the only church on earth that is directly led by God. We believed this in our minds and in our hearts. We were told a story that made sense to us, and we felt good when we prayed about it.

But we have noticed some unsettling things. We've seen parts of the story that don't add up, or have been covered up. We've asked about these things, and been told there's nothing going on. Some of us have even been accused of disloyalty for asking. A lot of time has passed, and now the church admits "There might have been something not quite right in our story." At this point, many of us are in panic. We want, first of all, to know exactly what has happened. We have many questions:

  • Did Joseph run treasure hunting scams?
  • What did Joseph originally say he saw in the grove?
  • What's going on with this seer stone I'm hearing about?
  • Is it the same stone he used for the treasure hunting?
  • Did the Nephites actually exist?
  • Was the priesthood restoration invented years after the church was founded, and then back-dated by inserting it into existing revelations?
  • When Nephi quoted from Biblical prophets, did their writings exist yet?
  • Did the papyri that Joseph translated actually say anything about Abraham?
  • Did Mormons commit their own mob violence and atrocities?
  • How many women did Joseph marry?
  • Were they really able to say "No"?
  • Did he marry other men's wives?
  • Did he lie about polygamy?
  • Are the temple ceremonies adapted from Freemasonry?
  • Did church leaders lead the church astray by banning blacks from priesthood and temples?
  • Is there anything else you've been keeping from me?

Over many of these questions hangs one more: Why wasn't I told about any of this before?

In this moment of panic and despair, we need facts in order to decide how we should feel and what we should do. Those facts could either reassure us or disturb us more. Major life commitments rest on the answers to these questions.

The church now has to choose between two paths: repentance or defense. If it chooses repentance it will immediately and completely answer these questions. It will correct its lessons to include the true facts and remove incorrect ones. It will apologize for getting the facts wrong, for covering some facts up, and for accusing members of disloyalty when they confronted the church about them. If it chooses this path, it may start to rebuild our trust in it.

On the other hand, if it chooses defense, it will give only partial or evasive answers. It will make excuses. It will look for ways to make us the bad guys. But while such a defense may help the church save face, it will doom our relationship. Rather than rebuilding trust, it will convince us that its dishonesty is likely to continue.

The church is not consistent in its choice.

Sometimes it seems to be choosing repentance. It hasn't excommunicated the authors of some recent histories (Richard Bushman or Todd Compton) the way it excommunicated Fawn Brodie or the September Six. It is making huge strides in transparency and historical accuracy with the Joseph Smith Papers Project. It has stopped supporting the mean-spiritedness that was common under FARMS and started supporting open and nuanced research under the Maxwell Institute. It has published the Gospel Topics essays that admit many of the facts that used to be denied. It has put those essays in the Gospel Library mobile app. Elder Ballard has promoted these essays in CES meetings, regional conferences, and the Ensign. Online lesson manuals have incorporated links to the essays as additional resources. These actions give me hope.

But other times it seems like the church is choosing defense or denial over repentance. It still excommunicates non-scholars who call too much attention to the problematic issues (John Dehlin, Jeremy Runnells). Some hard topics are not yet covered by any essay. Priesthood restoration issues, the Masonic origins of the temple, and the archaeology and anachronisms of the Book of Mormon are notably omitted. The essays that we do have contain obfuscations, justifications, and partial or evasive answers. They've been rolled out halfheartedly, originally buried in a larger collection of essays on innocuous topics, and only later given their own web page. The more devastating admissions on Joseph's polygamy are in an essay that's still not linked from that page. They've not been mentioned in General Conference talks, or announcements in church on Sunday. Other than Elder Ballard, no general authorities seem willing to admit that the essays exist. There's been no trainings about them for teachers or bishops. Lesson manuals have not been updated with the new facts; the essays are just an optional additional resource. It is still taboo to raise the hard topics or discuss the new facts in class on Sunday.

The church's defensive actions increase my disappointment, discouragement, and distrust. But its repentant actions help me maintain a small glimmer of hope that our relationship can be salvaged. With these mixed messages, I'm faced with deciding how much to commit to this church, and how long to wait for full honesty. If the leaders are committed to making real changes, I want to stay and help. But if they're not committed to seeing this through, I don't want to spend the rest of my life tilting at windmills. This is true locally as well as at the top: if my bishop and teachers are willing to correct the problems in our traditional story, then I want to be there to share how I have found faith and connection to God after processing the initial shock. But if they show defensiveness or denial about the problems, then I don't want to keep sticking my neck out in classes where the new facts aren't welcome.

For the church to repent, people at every level from prophets to primary teachers need to become aware of the problems, think about how they may have contributed to them, and then work to fix them. I hope that you will consider how you could help rebuild trust in the church with people who have lost it. I, and thousands of people like me, would be very grateful. I want to trust my church again.