Friday, May 8, 2009

Perspectives on Church History from the Community of Christ

A few months ago, I came across a message from Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) president Stephen M. Veazey, regarding church history principles. But the person who told me about it had copied and pasted the text, modifying a few names and presenting it as the words of LDS church president Thomas S. Monson. I pretty quickly realized it couldn't have been written by any leader of the LDS church, because it says things like this:

Because of my exploration of various credible works, and probing discussions with historians, some of my previously held notions have been challenged and adjusted in the face of additional knowledge. The “apologetic” approach to church history—presenting our story in as favorable a light as possible—is not sufficient for the journey ahead. That approach does not evidence the integrity that must be fundamental to our witness and ministry.

and this:

If we say that a book on history is the only true telling of the story, we risk “canonizing” one version, a tendency we have shown in the past. This blocks further insights from continuing research. Good historical inquiry understands that conclusions are open to correction as new understanding and information comes from ongoing study.

I could imagine someone like Joseph Smith saying these things, or Joseph F. Smith, or even David O. McKay. But I cannot in my wildest imaginations see Thomas S. Monson saying them. First, he would have to admit that it is possible for his own notions to be challenged and adjusted in the face of evidence, which would imply that he is capable of learning "additional knowledge" he doesn't already have. Second, he would have to admit that the whitewashing of LDS church history in recent decades has been a mistake, which would imply that church leadership is capable of making mistakes. Third, he would have to admit that serious study of church history (i.e. from actual historians who examine source materials from outside the faith-promoting manual) is a valuable endeavor, and can actually give us a more accurate picture of the early church than what is taught each week in Sunday school.

I don't see any of this happening anytime soon. Instead, we get talks from Boyd K. Packer telling us that some things that are true aren't very useful. And in the latest General Conference, we are told that doubt is one of the "destructive Ds", and that unfavorable descriptions of the church are untrue and unfair. There is no nuanced discussion about when or where doubt or skepticism may be appropriate, or criticism of the church might be fair. Doubt is always wrong, and as Dallin H. Oaks reiterated during the Frontline story on the Mormons, it's wrong to criticize leaders of the church even if the criticism is true.

Here's the thing. Truth has nothing to fear from scrutiny. If something is really true, then it will stand up to thorough investigation. Examining all the evidence can only confirm the truth. So if the church-approved version of LDS history is true, then why is it taboo to study history from other credible sources? Why is it wrong to be unsatisfied with taking church leaders' word for it, and to examine the evidence for oneself? Why are we counseled against reading anything that is not faith-promoting? What is there to fear? The truth has nothing to fear, but irrational belief certainly does.

In my opinion, contrary to what Kevin Pearson says in the General Conference talk linked above, doubt is not "a negative emotion related to fear," which betrays a lack of self-confidence. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Fear is what kept me from acknowledging my doubts for a long time. In critically examining my own beliefs and doubts, rather than succumbing to fear, I have begun to overcome it. Rather than revealing a lack of self-confidence, I have become more confident in my ability to discern truth, and in my ability to handle many other areas of life as well. I don't have all the answers, but I am no longer afraid of not having all the answers.

If the LDS church's attitude toward its own history were more in tune with Stephen Veazey's statement, I would feel a lot more at home in the LDS church. I would love to have discussions about actual church history in Sunday school. Not because I want to tear down people's faith, but because I find the subject interesting and I would like to explore it with other people who claim to care about it. Unfortunately, this is not possible for two reasons: most members don't actually know very much about church history; and discussing anything that challenges the faith-promoting story is essentially verboten. It doesn't have to be that way. It hasn't always been that way. But I also don't see it changing anytime soon.


Tom said...

Awesome post Mike!

The recent history of the Community of Christ is very interesting, especially to those associated with the LDS church. When the church decided to not stress the importance of the Book of Mormon & the D&C and when they changed their name from RLDS to Community of Christ it sent a powerful message that forever changed the church. That message was that they could not avoid the historical truth from their history and it is best to face it and move forward. What a refreshing position to take!

Like you said Mike, it really makes you wonder what the LDS church would be like if it did the same thing. We can only hope...maybe someday.

Saganist said...

Thanks, Tom. I certainly understand why the LDS might take the position it does. CoC membership is a lot lower than LDS, which (I almost hate to say it, but nah, not really) doesn't bring in as much cash. Encouraging people to study the history for themselves, after LDS has built up a magical fairy tale version so for so long, would spell disaster for the bottom line. That's the path the CoC has chosen, and I believe it is the morally correct decision. The alternative is to continue a tight spiral into ultra-dogmatism, which is, unfortunately, the course I foresee for the LDS church. I don't think that course can be sustained for very long on such a large scale, especially in the age of the Internet.