Because I have had my own trials of faith, and have stood in the figurative shoes of those who see things from a non-believing standpoint, I have become increasingly aware of the language we use and the ways in which it contributes to our cultural peculiarities and often times sets people up for failure. Sometimes people genuinely deconstruct each aspect of their faith and nothing can be done to bring them back. But many times I am convinced that if we merely modified our rhetoric and vernacular surrounding various topics, we could prevent much of the cultural baggage we carry, and move toward an appropriate inoculation of “hard” realities that often become stumbling blocks later on.
One important topic that was recently taught in our ward is faith in Christ. In our YoungMen’s lesson we discussed what it means to have faith in Christ, and what blessings can come from exercising faith and obedience to Christ. Some of these blessings took the form of stories about miraculous healings from a priesthood blessing. Near the end of the lesson, the instructor bore his testimony of the atonement. At this point he also shared that he “knew that Christ saw each of their (the young men’s) faces, and understood the burdens of each one of us as he accomplished the atonement.”
It is no doubt important to bear testimony, and it is no doubt critical to discuss faith in Christ. Faith in Christ has power to heal us spiritually, and has power to move us to action. Additionally, faith is a complex topic, not easily defined or understood. Nevertheless, it is a rich topic that has much to offer us in the real world of our everyday lives without the need for perpetuating a magical worldview. It is certainly possible that Christ saw my face and yours as he completed the atonement, but there isn’t any scriptural support (or prophetic that I know of) for such a statement. It is also possible that people have been literally healed by a priesthood blessing. But it’s an empirical reality that people of many faiths believe they have been healed in a similar way.
It might seem like I’m being overly dramatic here. After all, it’s a small statement, by an innocent young men’s instructor – certainly not a revelation of any sort. The problem is that this is a larger systemic problem of careless language that, rather than being couched in reality with an emphasis on technical precision of communication and presentation, seeks to create an emotional response by appealing to our magical worldview and credulity. It seeks to promote faith by aggrandizement rather than a deep abiding confidence that one’s chosen path draw them nearer to God.
The punchline is that this is what ends up destroying faith because its inaccuracy is surely to be discovered in short order. It seems to me that in the past, our approach has been to try and suppress the discovery that similar pronouncements (whatever they may be) were inaccurate. As has been pointed out by such heavy hitters as Dan Peterson, and Richard Bushman it is necessary to be accurate and completely forthcoming in the first place to avoid the feeling of being “lied to.”
In these cases I think there are small changes in our language that could treat topics with all the sacredness and seriousness they deserve without setting us up for disappointment. In this particular case, I think faith in Christ can be a springboard for a discussion into Maxwellian true discipleship, as a motivating factor for caring for our fellows, and perhaps most importantly putting ourselves in their shoes to avoid unrighteous judgment and the beam/mote paradigm. Why not present a lesson about small changes the young men can make to show gratitude to their parents or leaders? Or what about a lesson on how our faith in Jesus Christ should govern how we treat the inactive young man who comes to church to pass the sacrament in a mohawk, jeans, and t-shirt? After all, it is the implementation of faith translated to action stemming from knowledge that produces true discipleship:
One mistake we can make during this mortal experience is to value knowledge apart from the other qualities to be developed in submissive discipleship. Knowledge—discovery, its preservation, its perpetuation—is very important. Yet, being knowledgeable while leaving undeveloped the virtues of love, mercy, meekness, and patience is not enough for full discipleship. Mere intellectual assent to a truth deprives us of the relevant, personal experiences that come from applying what we profess to believe. There were probably orientation briefings in the premortal world about how this mortal life would unfold for us, but the real experience is another thing!
Thus, while knowledge is clearly very important, standing alone it cannot save us. I worry sometimes that we get so busy discussing the doctrines in various Church classes that talking about them almost becomes a substitute for applying them. One cannot improve upon the sobering words of King Benjamin, who said, “Now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them” (Mosiah 4:10). Such is still the test. Deeds, not words—and becoming, not describing—are dominant in true discipleship. – Neal A. Maxwell, Becoming a Disciple
Virtually all groups redefine words and/or create language to solidify the group and help identify insiders and outsiders. It’s natural that Mormonism has developed such a paradigm as well. But I think the long term damage it can cause is serious and unnecessary. We can teach lessons that maintain scriptural and historical integrity, and still deepen our faith in the Gospel. As an added bonus, I think as we shift our language and rhetoric to be more true to real life with greater scriptural and historical precision, we will find it easier to apply Gospel principles to our everyday lives in a way that can help us draw nearer to God.