We think we know what it means to “believe” or to “have faith.” But do we? Has the current ways we use these terms remained stable throughout history? No, says Frances Lee Menlove in an important essay in her new book, The Challenge of Honesty: Essays for Latter-day Saints. She argues further that these changes have had a large negative impact for many Christians and Mormons today, but she hopes that through better understanding of these shifts and opening ourselves to the terms original meanings we might begin to undo some of the damage that has been done—damages done by anti-intellectualism, dogmatism, the invention of the idea of “heresy,” and all other things that keep us from uniting in fellowship with each other, which Menlove suggests is the call of both original Christianity and early Mormonism.
Another place of strain for many Latter-day Saints today is the seeming devaluation of testimonies that assert “faith” in gospel teachings rather than a “knowledge” that they are true. It has come to the point that many who don’t’ feel they “know” this or that is true feel out of step, or less “acceptable” as a Mormon than those who claim sure knowledge. Can this be another area where more examination can help relieve some pressure—much to the good of the overall church and culture?
In this episode, we are thrilled to have as panelists two important voices in the history of free and unfettered discourse about Mormonism—Frances Lee Menlove, one of the five founders of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon History, and D. Jeff Burton, author of the seminal book, For Those Who Wonder, and author of nearly fifty “Beyond the Borderlands” columns in Sunstone magazine—to talk about these important subjects. Both guests teach powerfully through by word and example, and we are sure you will feel well-rewarded by listening in on the great conversation we had with them.
We hope you will listen and then share you comments below!
Frances Lee Menlove, The Challenge of Honesty: Essays for Latter-day Saints by Frances Lee Menlove, ed. Dan Wotherspoon (Signature Books, 2013).
D. Jeff Burton website (includes ordering information for the book, For Those Who Wonder, as well as free pdf version; also links to his Braving the Borderlands columns)
AML Review of The Challenge of Honesty
Great podcast Dan! Great guests like Frances and Jeff are my kind of people. I thought your comments on Jeff’s assertion that Joseph and Brigham used “knowledge” language were interesting, as it seemed that you want to go back to a pure liberal origin of Mormonism that never existed, where having faith was enough. I think there is a great deal of evidence which shows that Joseph Smith’s main interest was in shoring up a version of orthodox Protestantism in an American setting where the acids of modernity were wearing away the foundations of Christianity. In essence, being able to say one “knew” God and Jesus were essentially like us was a way to use a language of science which was percolating down to the common person in New England.
Thanks, John. I appreciate your comment about my perhaps wanting to assert a Mormonism that never really existed, but I stand by my sense of things, and definitely over your claim that Smith’s main interest was all about shoring up an orthodox Protestantism in an American setting under attack by modernity. That feels to me very narrow, more of an academicians sort of thesis rather than a description that captures all that big a piece of either Smith’s project or the feel of excitement in the early church.
Frances’s book, the Arrington article she cites, Ericksen’s observations, even just the whole “feels so good not to be trammeled” story, along with dozens/hundreds of other small pieces of JS and his actions and words are what come together for me as reasons for my hunch that “faith” in the sense that Frances is talking about here was ascendant during much of Smith’s years. My hunch is also fed by my sense of him as a mystic and deep adventurer in Spirt, as someone whose primary mode would have been, “Let’s all have these visions and experiences” and yet, because of the reality of trying to hold a group together when everyone is at so many different levels of belief and connection with Spirit, he was not always able to convey that true desire and act solely toward making it a realit. I do think he thrilled, though, when he found folks who’d also tasted/”got” what he’d tasted and learned.
Adding onto this sense of mine and reason for standing (certainly still with your critique in mind as a possibility) with it, is how a key piece of spiritual experience is its influence and impat that overpowers words and our ability to talk about it in ways that truly capture what we’ve known and learned. Given that, I don’t think Smith was naturally oriented toward the supremacy of doctrine (certainly not his exact words about it–he was constantly editing his revelations) or any sense that beliefs “save us.” They help when it means they are pointing toward a big and true vision of ourselves and God, but my sense is even Smith would have been quite forthcoming were we to ask him about their inability to really “capture” the experience or truths conveyed via our own experiencing of God/ourselves.
Thanks, again, for the comment and conversation! I hope we will continue it if you’d like to.
Again another excellent podcast. I am now going through the borderlands archives finding more affirmation for believing and being faithful without “knowing.”
The stars must be aligning because I just watched an excellent TED talk on why it is good to be comfortable with being wrong and potentially dangerous to be absolutely certian. I’ll leave the link below.
Thanks again for the excellent conversation to listen to.
An inspiring book too.
Thank you for broadening my perspective of other “faiths”. (Just kidding, I was listening.) But seriously, thank you for broadening my definition of “faith”, ‘belief” and “knowledge”. The podcast annihilated a great deal of my assumptions about my relationship to the church and my faith. I’m still reeling, but right now I’m inspired to be a better disciple and to cultivate my relationship with God. Having heard this podcast, I aspire to be a better co-disciple of others seeking the same. Thank you for your diverse voices! I think someone needs to make a meme or sew on a pillow one of the great quotes from this podcast, “God doesn’t necessarily care what we get right as long as we are right with Him.” Amen.
Very nice, J.A.T. Thanks for sharing here!
This column by OS Card is an excellent exploration of some of these issues. He notes that faith is more valuable than knowledge and that knowledge does not necessarily correlate with accuracy.
What a great podcast, thanks to all of you for sharing your insights and stories! I will no longer refer to my experience as a faith crisis and will now refer to it as a belief crisis.
Love it, Emily!
One of my favorite podcasts you have done yet! Loved the comment about faith being a bridge between belief and knowledge, letting us taKe action in spite of our diubts. I am inspired and needed to hear this!
Could I get the exact citation of that Leonard Arrington quote about Joseph keeping a lot of people with different ideas melded together and things kind of falling apart a little after his death? That was really interesting to me. Great podcast.
Here is the key paragraph in France’s book (on pages 52-53) with this quotation and ideas:
Addressing the presence of theological diversity in early Mormonism, Church Historian Leonard Arrington writes: “That there was intellectual ferment in early Mormonism is clear; the dispersion which occurred after his death in 1844 is evidence that Joseph Smith held together persons of a wide variety of opinions and beliefs.” Arrington then goes on to talk more specifically about the prophet’s attitude toward the dogmatic
personalities that are found in every religious tradition, noting that “Joseph Smith often opposed the dogmatists within the Church who, once they got hold of a ‘truth,’ sought to discourage the creative thought of others who continued to experiment with even newer truths.” For Smith, then, settling a doctrine once and for all was not nearly as important as spiritual questing,each person united around certain principles but then reaching and stretching toward God.
The reference for the Arrington quotation(s) is: Leonard Arrington, “The Intellectual Tradition of Later-day Saints,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4, no. 1 (Spring 1969): 17-18.
Earlier in the essay, Frances quotes Arrington from that same article of his, in which he described early Mormonism’s understanding of itself as a “fellowship of believers in ‘Restored Chrsitianity’ rather than a sect with an inflexible theology.”
Hope this helps!
Thank you very much for a yet again insightful podcast. I stumbled onto Mormon Matters via Mormon Stories a couple of months ago (found out about Mormon Stories from a New York Times article). What a wonderful experience it has been! I am a skeptical Catholic who had no idea about Mormonism before. Your podcasts not only helped me to investigate many questions and issues about religion and spirituality that I did not think about seriously, but also gave me an opportunity to get to know Mormonism
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I stumbled across this podcast this past week–nearly a year after it was aired. Blew my mind and made me tear up. I’m a 35 year old single woman, who struggles with the culture of the church. I thought I was very alone in my thinking. I have maybe 3 close friends that think similarly to the way I do, and we all just counted ourselves as ‘inactive’, though deep down we love the gospel and the foundations it is built on. So many of my struggles were addressed in this podcast and made me feel so normal. Jeff and Frances were perfect guests and validated my feelings so many times. And of course I shared it with the 3 friends that think the same as me! And thank you so much for your comments as well.
I’m SO pleased you found this one, Becky! Thanks for sharing your story about its effects on you (and hopefully those wonderful friends of yours)! I hope you’ll find other good things on other episoded that will help you feel like you’re part of a community of spiritual travelers. You definitely are! All my best, always, as you keep pushing forward. Please let me know privately if I can ever offer more specific assistance. Cheers!
Becki! (Sorry for the misspelling!)