I was raised in a household of faith. My parents are believers who encouraged discussion of religion in their home. I’ve asked around and found that this isn’t the case in many LDS homes. My parents asked what we children learned in Primary and Sunday School and then what we thought about it!
We also had books on the shelves, dangerous books. I often think of this when I hear well-meaning LDS friends say they put an historical or theological concern “on the shelf,” so to speak. I pull mine off the shelf! The shelf is where most of these issues come from in the first place! Reading H.G. Wells’s Outline of History, Joseph Fielding Smith’s Essentials of Church History, Leonard Arrington’s and Davis Bitton’s The Mormon Experience, Obert Tanner’s Christ’s Ideals for Living, and Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine was enough to get some internal debates going. It was apparent these folks were not all on the same page about very fundamental things.
How to make sense of the contradictory voices? Only later in seminary did I hear that prayer followed by expected good feelings was the surest way to truth. This never fully took with me, and certainly didn’t help me decide if evolution driven by natural selection was the means by which human life developed, or if the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch was true. As a child and teenager, I had occasional intuitive flashes which I sometimes interpreted as inspiration, but these felt less certain to me than objective evidence, especially when my intuitions took me in wrong directions.
Lowell Bennion’s Understanding the Scriptures was one tool I found to use reason to sift through religion and extract the truth. I mean, have you ever tried to sit down and read through the book of Genesis, let alone the entire Old Testament, from beginning to end, and not have some serious questions about the mass of weirdness you encounter? Bennion used his faith in the loving character of God as the most important criterion to judge the divinity of particular scriptural passages. Therefore, if you read in the Good Book that a certain prophet called down she-bears to devour little children for making fun of his bald spot, you can be sure God was not involved in the transaction, and presumably that the author of this particular piece of scripture was making it up or mistaken. I continue to be amused at those who will jump to the defense of the divine origin of every verse of scripture, and use their knowledge of ancient languages to show that the little children were really Babylonian teenage gangsters, Assyrians undergoing mid-life crises or Canaanite senior citizens, missing the point that God doesn’t do this kind of thing at all if other scriptures we read about Him being loving are to be held as true.
Bennion’s basic approach of focusing on the character of God revealed to us in Mormon scripture and experience, modified slightly as I have lived more fully and read more widely, has served me well in doing two things: staying Mormon and staying sane. I have kept my faith in a loving God through crises that were trying, and have kept my self-respect as I have shifted my theological paradigm occasionally to adjust to new information and life experiences.
In part III, I will present a prognosis for Mormons like me. What are some of the challenges this approach to Mormonism will likely face, from within and without the Church?
Discuss, my friends: