Metaphors for Dealing with the Tough IssuesBy: Guest
Today’s guest post is by M. Taylor McKeown.
I consider myself a believer in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I would call myself a “True Believing Mormon” except that term has taken on a whole lot of baggage that I’m not sure I fully understand. But I believe in the basic core truth claims of the Church, that God lives, Jesus is the resurrected Savior, the atonement is somehow important, Joseph is a prophet, the Book of Mormon is the word of God, the priesthood power is something real, etc. I also think I am fully aware of all the tough issues and controversies in the Church, and have researched nearly all of them in some detail.
In addition to believing in the core truth claims, I believe in some things that some Mormons may disagree with… I believe that evolution is the most likely process that God used to create life on earth, that the scriptures are highly limited based on the light and understanding of their time (e.g. the flood was probably local, Adam didn’t really live 1000+ years, the New Testament was probably modified significantly between Jesus’ mouth and what we have today, etc.), that prophets are capable of mistakes (sometimes even big ones), and that we still have A LOT to learn about the eternities. I also have a huge amount of empathy for those who disbelieve, because I think there are a lot of very legitimate reasons to doubt. But I’ve also had some undeniable spiritual experiences that have rooted me in “belief” in general and rooted me in “Mormon belief” specifically. I am a believer.
I sometimes get asked: ”How do you deal with the tough issues of the Church and still believe?” I think the temptation (and mistake) of many is to dive first into the specific controversial issues. The Book of Abraham, polygamy/polyandry, Book of Mormon credibility, and the racial priesthood ban are four of the top issues that have been shown in recent studies to correlate to disbelief, for instance. And while you can and should certainly examine each of those individually, I think it’s potentially harmful to do that without first providing a context for understanding how to frame those and other issues.
Here are a few of the best ways I’ve seen to provide context for dealing with the tough issues in our search for truth:
1. THE SHELF.
One of the most common frameworks I’ve heard is “Putting your issues on the shelf.” This is a very valuable and common framework for many, since it allows you to suspend general doubts while you focus on the positive or faithful aspects of the gospel. This analogy never worked for me, though, except as a very temporary solution for the less-important issues. I’m far too curious, and if I had adopted this framework for dealing with the controversial topics, I’m afraid that my metaphorical shelf would have collapsed a long time ago under the weight of too many issues.
2. THE SCALES: WEIGHING THE EVIDENCE.
Another common and highly useful framework is the idea that you can weigh the evidence on both sides: for and against the Church. I find this framework very helpful, as long as we are aware of a few key implications.
First, we need to be aware that we all underestimate our confirmation bias. That is, if we are seeking to find evidence against the Church, we will find it; likewise, if we are seeking to find evidence in favor of the church we will find it. So in many ways, how your scales become stacked depends more upon how you spend your time, rather than the true weight of the evidence. If you spend 90% of your time reading faith-challenging materials and 10% reading faith-promoting materials, don’t be surprised if your scale starts to tip towards disbelief. This has nothing per se to do with the evidence, but simply the fact that you have a bias (as do the materials you are reading) and are systematically accumulating more evidence on one side than on the other.
Another key implication is that even if we somehow eliminate our bias, we should probably still expect there to be roughly equal evidence on both sides. This is the principle of intellectual agency that Teryl Givens and many other believers have articulated so well – that if God is just, then He must allow for there to be evidence available on both sides so that agency is upheld; you are not compelled one way or the other. Since God has said that He must “try the faith of His people,” we should never expect the evidence to tip completely in favor of belief. That way we are left with a legitimate choice.
A final implication of “weighing the evidence” is the dilemma of “spiritual witnesses” as evidence. Very often, this is the evidence that tips the scales one way or the other, so the choice of whether or not to include “spiritual witnesses” is often the deciding factor regardless of any amount of evidence against the church. To me there is a certain poetic justice to this. No matter how much or how little we know or think we know, in the end our belief often comes down to our spiritual witnesses and whether or not you accept them as authentic and real. Again, it is our choice.
In addition to those commonly utilized frameworks, here are some less common metaphors that I have found very helpful.
3. THE RELATIONSHIP.
Just as I have a relationship with my spouse, my family, and my country which I would not sever lightly, I have a relationship with my church. Occasionally I will dig up “dirty laundry” – hidden bad things in the history of my spouse, my country, or my church – and I may wonder why I was left in the dark when I made my commitments and pledges. And sometimes, perhaps often, I will disagree with the current actions and directions that the other party in my relationship is taking. I may sometimes feel ignored and misunderstood – that my needs and wants are not being met or even listened to. Do I give up on the relationship? Do I cut the ties? Perhaps at some point of extreme abuse and neglect, there does come a time when it’s better for everyone involved to just part ways. But that is not a decision to be taken lightly, and it sometimes says just as much about me as it does about the other party.
Because relationships are intended to be a commitment, a give-and-take. While any relationship can be “functional,” in order for it to be meaningful and satisfying I need to put something into it, and believe in it to a certain degree, in spite of (and sometimes because of) the faults and shortcomings of the party with whom I have the relationship. The saying “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” could apply equally to any relationship. And the truth is, I have found that when I really make a dedicated effort to put something into it, my church relationship provides an amazing return.
4. THE ATTIC.
Instead of setting your issues permanently aside on some shelf to be ignored and forgotten, just put them up in the Attic, where there’s plenty of room and plenty of other curiosities, atrocities, wonders, tragedies and hidden treasure. Bring your open mind, and come up to the Attic as often as you’d like to dust off the issues and explore them to your heart’s content. You’ll find there are some amazing and very cool people in the Attic – as well as a few ignorant jerks, but don’t mind them – who love to debate and understand the issues in all their splendor and horror. And if you’re like me, you’ll find things in the Attic that are truly fascinating and challenging, and a constant source of spiritual and intellectual stimulation.
But don’t get lost in the Attic. Don’t forget that the House is so much more than the issues found up in the rafters. The House is the gospel, the church, the community, the forever families, the serving others, the building of Christlike attributes, the all-loving God, the covenants, the search for truth, the desire to improve, the life-altering scriptures, the reaching for the divine, the answers to prayer, mixed in with a fair amount of faith, uncertainty, and personal decision. The House is cozy but beautiful and strong – built on a firm foundation that can weather the storm. And yes, there are a number of mundane, boring, day-to-day chores that are required to maintain the House and make it through to those occasional flashes of brilliant light and glory. But if you remember to live in and take care of the House, it will forever change your life for the better and give you a glimpse of eternity. And if you’re like me, you’ll find that your House can support anything and everything that’s up there in the Attic.
5. THE TRUE CHURCH IN EMBRYO.
Sometimes in Mormon theology we refer to ourselves as being “Gods in embryo” because we have all the genetic material to someday become Gods (emphasis on the “someday” part). Similarly, it may be useful to think of the Church having all the right genetic material in its DNA to someday become the true and perfect church, whereas today it’s just the “true and living” Church, with an emphasis on the “living/growing/developing” part. Challenges, mistakes, and misunderstandings are not only justifiable under this framework, but expected. We would be surprised (and perhaps even disappointed) if the growing up process didn’t come with a fair share of learning experiences; and in fact, the mistakes made early in life often provide the foundation for success later on. But underneath the roughness and adolescent imperfections, the Church has a genetic core of something beautiful and eternal – something true and enduring and amazing which can grow in light and glory until it achieves its eternal potential – just as each of us has that same potential if we can only unlock it and persevere.
In conclusion, I have found that these frameworks – these tools – have helped me to follow the advice of Joseph Smith to be “willing to receive all truth, from whatever source it may come.” I have examined the evidence, weighed and contextualized it to the best of my ability, and made my informed choice: I choose to believe, and I choose to remain a committed member of the Church.
So what about you? Do any of these frameworks resonate with you? Do you have other methods for seeking truth in the context of challenging issues?
Post note: A quick word of credit where due in a few of these analogies:
The “Relationship” analogy was one I first heard from Armand Mauss in his wonderful article from the book compiled by Robert Rees: “Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons.” http://www.amazon.com/Why-Stay-Challenges-Discipleship-Contemporary/dp/1560852135
The “True Church in Embryo” is an analogy I first heard from my brilliant and beautiful wife.
The “Mormon Attic” analogy came to me late one night in a dream-like state. If you are inspired by it and find it uplifting, then I’ll give credit to God. If you find it uninspiring, then we can just say that it was the result of spontaneous and random firings of neural patterns in my sleep-deprived brain.