Sunday, February 17, 2013

Is the Church true?

Every Sunday, I greet my former Bishop and very good friend with the statement, "Well, Bishop, is the Church still true?"  His normal response is, "What does that word mean?"  We laugh. 

His wife has been struggling for some seven years about whether the truth claims and hagiography around the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are valid.  She's researched all sorts of evidence that there are challenges with these claims, and she views that the Church tends to whitewash its leaders and history in the most positive of light.  She especially struggles over Joseph Smith's hidden polygamy and polyandry as being inconsistent with the role model we paint as what a Prophet should be.  Having been through all that, I certainly know where she is coming from.

Over dinner with my wife and her husband, she asked me, "Can you say that the Church is the only true church on the face of the earth?"  I simply answered, "Yes, it is for me."  This, from a wayfaring fool who believes none of the truth claims as being literally the case.

The "Mormon Apologists", or "mopologists" claim my Middle Way is incoherent nonsense.  Do they have a point?  Is it possible to have the Church be "true for me" when I don't believe in its historical truth claims?

I think what drives me to declare that the Church is "True for me" is the way many insist that since some of these truth claims are not valid, it must be "not true".  One ex-mormon thinks my Middle Way is "intellectually dishonest", because I fail to reject the whole because some of the parts are not valid.  Another non-mormon observed:
"The church is obviously not true because it's pretty obvious Joseph Smith just made things up, it's not at all clear that any of his more substantive claims, such as to have had hands laid upon him by resurrected or "translated" beings to confer authority on him from the Creator of the Universe, involve actual occurrences or are in fact later inventions designed to bolster his influence over his followers. Supposedly ancient scripture allegedly translated by Joseph Smith appears to have been of modern invention, etc."
This triggered something inside of me. 
It didn't trigger "doubt" -- I don't doubt the claims, for I have set aside belief entirely.  An empirical claim is either true, not true, or unproven, and doubt doesn't have a lot to do with it.  True claims I accept.  False claims I reject, and the Middle Way between them -- the area of the unproven, I suspend both belief and disbelief and hold such things in "Faith". 
No, I think it triggered "loyalty".  I think I objected to the buying-in of the "all or nothing" proposition -- it's either "all true" or "all fraud", and such absolutes don't work for me anymore.  My response was as follows:
I really have a serious issue with the proclamation, "It's obvious the church isn't true".

What does it mean for a 'church' to be 'true' or 'not true'?   I could look at a photograph, and say, is that photograph a true and accurate representation of the subject, and perhaps it is or perhaps it isn't. If I make a claim and say that the photograph is a picture of bob, when it really is a picture of 'fred', then we might be justified in saying 'it is not true'.

But the church is not a photograph. It is meant to point to something, and that something is 'Christ'. Does the church accurately point to Christ? Can I come closer to Christ by reading the Church's scripture (the book of mormon, etc.)? Is my daily life closer to Christ when I live in harmony with what the Church teaches?

Something within us all points to Christ. Something within Joseph Smith pointed very well to Christ. And that something, which I choose to call God, revealed to Joseph a powerful scripture that leads people to Christ by speaking to that spark of Christ within us all. We can choose to look at Joseph Smith's methods for getting that divine spark across.  We can pretend that he translated some ancient records and swear on our testimonies that he did. But any literal claim or lack thereof doesn't change whether or not the product of his prophetic experience points to Christ or not.

And the proof of that claim is entirely in the person experience one has. We have a word for that personal experience: "Testimony".

To say, "The Church is true for me," is to declare that it is mine.  I may not like everything it does -- it is full of people with whom I may agree or disagree.  Sometimes, I profoundly disagree.  But in the end, this is my tribe, my culture, and my Church.

This doesn't mean a blanket acceptance of harmful falsehoods.  Sterling McMurrin said in an interview in Dialogue, "I really have a genuine love for the Church and a concern for its well being."  He often stood in opposition to orthodoxy that didn't make sense, and was counted as a true "heretic".  I think his example is very critical.

To love the Church is to stand tactfully against those things it does to harm its members and others.  I struggled mightily with the Church's position on Proposition 8, as I did with its position on blacks and the priesthood on my mission.  On my mission, I caved and taught the principle of exclusion from the priesthood.  Proposition 8 had me distancing myself from the Church.  I find neither of these approaches satisfactory.  To be concerned with the welfare of the Church is to remain engaged and find the way to mend the harm done by the institution when it does harm.  This is the Middle Way of appropriate activism: to remain faithfully engaged in helping the church not do harm to itself.

Because the Church is mine, I bear responsibility for its actions, even and especially when I don't agree.  This is what it means to me to "sustain" its leaders.  I have no illusions that I can change any aspect of the Church.  The leadership is somewhat autocratic, and my voice is nothing.  But I can be very engaged.  I can and must stand in opposition, as I do, to those "mopologist" voices whose supposed defense of the Church does far more harm than good.  I will continue to oppose the blurring of boundaries between Church and State.  But these efforts often bring me down, emotionally, and do not bring out the best in me.

Where I think the Church matters the most is in the individual service we render.  I can sit, one on one, with those who struggle with faith, and find the way to lift them while lifting my own soul as well.  Here is where the church is truest to me -- in the quiet, loving service we render in support to another human being.