With gentleness and meekness: Sustaining and defending

There was a flurry of activity in Mormon Twitter the other day surrounding the topic of judgment: whether we are called upon to “judge righteous judgment” or to follow the King James version completely literally “judge note, that ye be not judged.” While @MormonLibsLMAO and I approach this topic from different points, we were able to find some common ground through the use of a talk by Elder Oaks.

I personally feel that certain principles need emphasizing in certain contexts, and right now members of the Church need more a message of loving their neighbor rather than defending truth. We’ve got the defending down pretty good already, but we still are very imperfect at loving others who are different than us.

In my response, I addressed some ideas on judgment, but you will notice that @MormonLibsLMAO referenced a responsibility to defend the Church. I wasn’t able to address this directly in my post, because I have quite a few thoughts on the matter. I do believe Latter-Day Saints have both a responsibility to not speak ill of Church leaders, and to stand up for truth. I believe this is a part of our covenants, and I believe it is part of fully living the faith. But I also believe that there are other priorities in the gospel that inform how we act, that defending the Church isn’t our number one obligation and it isn’t the most central principle of the gospel, and that there isn’t only one approved or correct way of responding to critics. I find much wisdom in President Uchtdorf’s quite of St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words“. I believe that the way we live goes a long way. Our discipleship is most powerful when our beliefs completely align with our actions, an inner integrity. I believe that certain methods of “defending the Church” are not compatible with this. I want to outline a few sources that inform my approach to living and standing up for the gospel.

Two models: Bruce R. McConkie and Lowell Bennion

I wanted to start out by contrasting two models of discipleship. Both are men I that I can respect and look up to in certain respects. Both were devoted Latter-Day Saints. But their approach to defending the Church was very different. I want to look at both Bruce R. McConkie and Lowell Bennion and how they approached a controversial issue in the Church in their own day, blacks and the priesthood.

Elder McConkie represents to me confidence in the current orthodoxy. At the time, blacks were not allowed to hold the priesthood. Elder McConkie didn’t view this only as a temporary policy, but rather as an eternal principle, and he leveraged everything he could in his book Mormon Doctrine to justify it. He famously declares that blacks do not hold the priesthood, because they were less valiant in the pre-existence:

In the pre-existent eternity various degrees of valiance and devotion to the truth were exhibited by different groups of our Father’s spirit offspring. One-third of the spirit hosts of heaven came out in open rebellion and were cast out without bodies, becoming the devil and his angels. The other two-thirds stood affirmatively for Christ: there were no neutrals. To stand neutral in the midst of war is a philosophical impossibility.

Of the two-thirds who followed Christ, however, some were more valiant than others. Those who were less valiant in pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed upon them during mortality are known to us as the negroes. Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty.

The present status of the negro rests purely and simply on the foundation of pre-existence. Along with all races and peoples he is receiving here what he merits as a result of the long pre-mortal probation in the presence of the Lord. The principle is the same as will apply when all men are judged according to their mortal works and are awarded varying statuses in the life hereafter.

While it is true that blacks were not able to hold the priesthood, McConkie actually was very much over-stepping his bounds. In his attempts at “defending the Church”, he went beyond Church doctrine, and directly disobeyed the Twelve Apostles and Church President David O. McKay, who directed him not to publish the book. He further explains in the book that suicide is murder and psychology is an apostate religion. McConkie is still to this day respected in LDS circles because of his staunch defense of the faith, but it is not a model that I choose to follow.

Lowell Bennion on the other hand disagreed with the Church’s stance on blacks and the priesthood. While he didn’t make political statements or directly criticize the Church, he did publicly express his opinions, sometimes causing a stir among Church leadership. It likely played a role in his removal from his position as Institute director at the University of Utah. In a debate at BYU with Professor Chauncey Riddle, the following exchange occured:

Riddle abruptly asked, “Is it moral to deny the Negro the priesthood?” Bennion responded with another question: “What would you do if you were taught facts contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and your inspiration after thoughtful… prayer?” Riddle replied, “If we challenge a revelation on the basis of whether it is moral or not we are on shaky ground.”

Bennion’s gentle reply: “I an willing to walk by faith in darkness, but when I am called upon to do something that is against… what I think is the heart and soul of the gospel… I just can’t be happy with the present practice of the church to deny the Negro the priesthood.”

This is the model I choose to follow when defending the Church. I will never defend any policy, practice, or doctrine, that I cannot agree with on moral grounds. I don’t believe the Church teaches that we should ignore our conscience. In fact, the Church teaches that “the light of Christ is given to every man that he may discern good from evil.” I will always give first priority to my conscience, above what anyone else says.

You shall cause the Lord thy God to be loved versus God can take care of Himself

Next, I wanted to highlight two principles that are (or at least can be at times) in tension with each other in the gospel, as taught by two authors I respect. The first is a Jewish author Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In his book To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Sacks takes an interesting perspective on the commandment “You shall love the Lord your God”:

“You shall love the Lord your God” [has been] interpreted as meaning, among other things, “You shall cause the Lord thy God to be loved.”

We are God’s ambassadors on earth. The way we live affects how others see him. God needs us. The idea sounds paradoxical but its true. Wittingly or unwittingly, the way we live tells a story. If we live well, we become a blessing to others, we become witnesses to the transformative power of the divine presence. God lives in the human situation to the extent that we live his will. As a radio converts waves into sound, so a holy life transforms God’s word into deed. We become his transmitters. That is why ‘sanctifying his name’ is a metaprinciple of Judaism.

I fully believe this. I believe God is good. But that is only made apparent in our own actions. I love Elder Uchtdorf’s talk where he teaches that we are the Lord’s hands. The greatest critiques of religion usually center on historical wrongs done in the name of religion. These are great tragedies, and critics are entirely justified in pointing them out. I don’t believe we should ever try to justify historic wrongs, but own them for what they are. The only way we can truly sanctify his name is by doing good and being a healing influence in the world.

The second principle comes form LDS Author Michael Austin in his book on Job. Austin includes an insightful analysis of the faults of Job’s “Comforters”. In seeking to comfort Job in his afflictions, they criticize Job for complaining to God. But God calls them out. They were the ones on the wrong, not Job. Austin summarizes:

We cannot use God, or our belief in God, to dismiss other people’s pain. Sometimes, this means listening to things that make us uncomfortable or challenge our beliefs. It means allowing people to speak ill of things we think well of– including (and perhaps especially) ourselves. And it means listening compassionately to those who criticize, contradict, or seek justice from God or from the human institutions that claim to represent Him. God can take care of Himself; our responsibility is to take care of each other.

We as members of the Church could really work on this. When people are suffering, we need to be there to attend to it. When that pain is due to a Church leader, policy, or doctrine, we should still be there. It can sometimes hurt to do so, because we may feel that they are hurting us. But that is part of mourning with those that mourn. I think we most reflect Christ when we are able to turn the other cheek, and respond with love. When Peter felt threatened by the guards coming to collect Jesus, he cut off a man’s ear in anger. Christ responds by healing the man’s ear. Christ later says “If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight,” implying that Peter’s efforts were not those of a true servant of Christ. When we are over-zealous in defending the Church like Peter was over-zealous in defending Christ, I also think we are not acting as true servants of Jesus Christ.

Apologetics

There is a special word for defending the Church, especially among scholars: apologetics. It sounds like apology, but it isn’t necessarily the same. Apologetics is the use of reasoned arguments in order to justify religious claims. I have read my share of apologetic literature. I remember discovering FARMS and FAIR Mormon when I got home from my mission. But the more I read, I would sometimes be left with a bad taste in my mouth. I felt that sometimes they would take a complex topic and brush over hard things. Instead of feeling spiritually uplifted from such works, I would instead feel at best bored and uninspired.

What really caught my imagination at the time wasn’t works by LDS authors, but rather the works of Christian writer and apologist C. S. Lewis. His book Mere Christianity struck me like a lightning rod. In reading a book about Lewis called C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, the author really captured what makes Lewis such an engaging and thoughtful writer of Christianity:

I think there is a persistent inner tension between two voices in Lewis’s writings, the voice of teh confident apologist and the Christian agnostic. The confident apologist makes strong, bold claims on behalf of Christianity. The Christian agnostic raises tough questions and refuses to let the solutions be easy. I find many Christian expositors and apologists frustrating because they make believing a little bit too easy, and also because they paper over problems that need to be taken more seriously than they are.

I really do think that we can make belief too easy when we gloss over difficult topics. God doesn’t want us to accept things blindly. He wants us to think deeply, to really wrestle with the angel. So let’s be better about our apologetics.

I eventually found some LDS authors who mirror this approach to apologetics, one of them being Adam Miller. In his Letters to a Young Mormon, he includes this interesting passage on a letter about Church history:

It’s a false dilemma to claim that either God works through practically flawless people or God doesn’t work at all. The gospel isn’t a celebration of God’s power to work with flawless people. The gospel is a celebration of God’s willingness to work today, in our world, in our lives, with people who clearly aren’t. To demand that Church leaders, past and present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel’s most basic claim: that God’s grace works through our weakness. We need prophets, not idols. Our prophets and leaders will not turn out to be who you want them to be. They are not, in fact, even what God might want them to be. But they are real and God really can, nonetheless, work through their imperfections to extend his perfect love.

Our church manuals and church histories are sometimes shy about this good news. With good intentions, they worry over your faith. Sometimes they seem too much like that friend of a friend who really just wants you to like them, and so they pretend to only like the same vanilla things they think you do. But God is stronger stuff than this. And the scriptures clearly are as well. If, as the Bible makes clear, God can work through liars, thieves, adulterers, murderers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and beggars, he can certainly work around (or even through) Joseph Smith’s clandestine practice of polygamy, Brigham Young’s strong-arm experiments in theocracy, or George Albert Smith’s mental illness.

This is exactly the same thing Lewis captures! People can take it. We shouldn’t try to shy away from our history, or be shamed because our past isn’t squeaky clean. No one’s is. In fact, the longer an institution is around, the more flaws its going to build because people aren’t perfect (more people equals more mistakes). That’s the conundrum about institutionalized religion.

In an essay on apologetics, Seth Payne captures two elements that I think we should incorporate into any attempt to defend the church: (1) this should always be done with gentleness and respect, and (2) our first priority should be people, not orthodoxy:

Apologetics is about defending the truth with gentleness and respect. The object of apologetics is not to antagonize or humiliate those outside the church, but to help open their eyes to the reality, reliability, and relevance of the Christian faith. There must be no mismatch or contradiction between the message that is proclaimed and the tone of the messenger’s proclamation. We must be winsome, generous, and gracious. If the gospel is to cause difficulty, it must be on account of its intrinsic nature and content, not the manner in which it is proclaimed. It is one thing for the gospel to give offense; it is quite another for its defenders to cause offense by unwise choice of language or an aggressive and dismissive attitude toward outsiders…

Broadly speaking, pastoral theology asserts two primary truths: suffering exists and all Saints are called to act as the agents of God’s love in alleviating that suffering. Such a theology cannot be bogged down by dogma, policy, tradition, or authority. Its claims are motivated by, but completely independent of, other LDS doctrines. No belief in or agreement on any abstract idea or assertion is requisite to feed the hungry or comfort the sick. There is a well-known traditional Zen Buddhist story wherein a student asks his master: “What is enlightenment?” The master replied: “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.” Pastoral care is just as simple. When you meet the hungry, feed. And when you encounter the sick or afflicted, provide comfort. If we find ourselves giving greater allegiance to abstract ideas or organizational practices more than to those we are called to serve, we have fundamentally misunderstood the beautiful simplicity of pastoral theology and the pastoral approach to apologetics.

God doesn’t ask us to be heresy hunters. Our commitments to God and to our fellow man more often than not will align with each other (King Mosiah taught as much: When you are in the service of your fellow man, you are only in the service of your God). We need to be willing to mourn with those that mourn, even as others criticize what we consider to be holy. And loving people will always be more important than making sure everyone is aware of your orthodoxy.

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