Many of our tidy childhood beliefs got upended as we grew up. For example, most of us believed in Santa Claus, that adults reliably know (and do) what’s right, and that Pluto was an authentic planet. We were mistaken.
Even our adult constructions of reality fall short. Bohr’s model of the atom has given place to swirling, humming, and incomprehensible new theories. Discoveries in relativity, uncertainty, quantum mechanics, and dark matter leave us wondering if we know anything about the universe we live in. If we worried very much about it, we could become quite troubled. If we insisted on understanding it all, we would be exasperated.
We do know that important parts of our world will act in predictable ways. Children will get hungry. Cars will break down. We will get irritated. But there is a lot of messiness in the world. We all live with a fair amount of uncertainty.
Let’s jump to the world of religious ideas. Some of us who have lived in the Bible belt have been surprised by the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The idea that the writings of inspired men several languages separated from us, many centuries away from us, and untold copyings between us would arrive intact and without flaws seems incredible. Joseph Smith’s position seems more defensible: “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors” (TPJS, p. 327). We should expect that there will be some corruption in the version of the Bible we have today; inerrancy just doesn’t make sense. It sounds like a child’s tale.
Similarly, we may have been amused that the Catholic Church has taught that the Pope is infallible. The long history of violence, indecision, and revision in Catholic leadership and doctrine makes the idea difficult to believe. We may be puzzled as to how others could find this position credible.
Both positions of Biblical inerrancy and papal infallibility create a tidy world where there is something solid a believer can rely upon. They create anchors in a turbulent world. People will contort themselves terribly to create a world that seems tidy and safe.
We stand outside those traditions and wonder at their adherents’ credulity. How can they possibly believe such things? We have imagined that the LDS religious universe is wonderfully tidy. At least many of us imagined that for a long time. We could explain away the Mountain Meadows Massacre as the work of a few unbalanced men. We have explained problems with the Egyptian papyri in various ways. But how do we explain a changed position on blacks and the priesthood when, for a long time, exclusion was the policy of the Church? How do we make sense of Joseph’s polygamy? There has been a terrible surge of untidiness for people who have traditionally loved their orderly religious environs.
Part of the answer seems to be that we must surrender our love of tidiness as part of our spiritual maturing. Apparently a faulty policy with respect to blacks and the priesthood gained institutional support somehow and was passed from generation to generation until brave souls challenged old thinking. With regard to polygamy, maybe Joseph was given a true principle but had to struggle to find its proper application. The process was messy.
Terryl Givens (2015) has made brilliant observations about the messiness of the restoration process.
“[Joseph] Smith would simultaneously deliver revelations in the voice of God and lament, ‘Oh Lord God, deliver us from this prison . . . of a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.’ And he would spend his entire life revising and recasting the words he gave his people as scripture, struggling to claw his way through irredeemably fallen human language to its perfect divine source. . . . [Smith’s] vision of prophets as flawed and fallible vessels, and of restoration as an untidy and imperfect process involving many sources, varying degrees of inspiration, and stops and starts, was itself a theological proposition with him. (pp. 30, 38-39, italics in original)
Maybe we must live with some messiness in sacred matters much as we must with our models of modern physics. Maybe we must be a little more humble in our religious assurance. Maybe there is a larger place in our lives for faith than we imagined.
Of course it is fair to ask, why do we accept Mormonism with its messiness rather than Catholicism or Protestantism with their messiness? Why would we favor our messiness over theirs? There are good reasons.
- The doctrines and practices of the Restoration are far less polluted by the philosophies of men. Anyone who reads the story of Christian thought will be amazed by the borrowings, debates, and confusion over the centuries from Jesus and His disciples to the present day. (See Jenkins: Jesus Wars, Hill: The History of Christian Thought, Olson: The Story of Christian Theology, MacMullen: Voting about God in Early Church Councils)
- The Restoration makes bold and interesting claims that are similar to those made by the ancient church. In understanding authority, revelation, discipleship, etc., the Restoration has delivered a church that is surprisingly similar to the New Testament church. (See Givens: Wrestling the Angel)
- “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). The fruits of steady growth, unparalleled levels of charitable giving, and remarkable youth suggest that there is something extraordinary about the fruits of the Restoration. Of course there is also messiness! LDS people also deal with depression, divorce, and bankruptcy. But, in the midst of life’s trials, the restored gospel provides adherents with hope, purpose and a supportive community. (For an insightful discussion of LDS youth excellence, see Dean: Almost Christian)
- His personal messenger. If any of us lack wisdom, we should ask God. He will answer. He enlightens our minds and assures our hearts. Sometimes we let our doubts set our spiritual agenda. God directs us to be guided by our joys and assurances rather than the messiness. “That which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness. That which is of God is light” (D&C 50:23-24).
- Doctrine that surprises and edifies. I find history fascinating but doctrine to be affirming. History describes the terrible messes that humans reliably create. Doctrine describes the mind and will of God. God’s work is much tidier than human work. While doctrinal debates continue across centuries, the Restoration provides spectacular messages in the three areas of doctrine that matter most.
- What is God like? God is not just a distant rumbling of ultimate power, He is our Father. He has, in Givens’ words, collapsed the sacred distance. We are His family and friends. He is bound to us as Father to children.
- How does He guide us? God provides remarkable redundancy in the guidance system He provides us: a wealth of scripture, living messengers (prophets, seers, and revelators), constant influence of the Holy Ghost, and a host of loving immortals. He must really want us back home!
- What is His plan for rescuing us? His plan is not, as some have suggested, to save the inexplicably chosen few. No! He will give all the glory to every one of us that we are willing to accept. The only ones who suffer lastingly are those who obstinately refuse His gifts.
This is good doctrine. On every important point, it sounds just like something a perfectly loving and powerful God would devise. And it agrees with a simple and direct understanding of scripture. It makes sense to believe in the Restoration even with the marginal messiness.
Robert Louis Stevenson has described faith in the context of imperfect knowledge: “If I from my spy-hole, looking with [partially blind] eyes upon a least part of a fraction of the universe, yet perceive in my own destiny some broken evidences of a plan, and some signals of an overruling goodness; shall I then be so mad as to complain that all cannot be deciphered? Shall I not rather wonder, with infinite and grateful surprise, that in so vast a scheme I seem to have been able to read, however little, and that little was encouraging to faith?” (quoted in Harry Emerson Fosdick: The Meaning of Faith, 1918, NY: Association Press, pp. 138-9).
We live in a time when we imagine that we understand a lot of the workings of nature. We think that, with GPS and the iPad, we have mastered the universe. We are mistaken. In a fallen world, there will always be some messiness. God will always give us the need for faith to settle the most fundamental questions. But messiness does not have to lead to agnosticism. The Restoration provides a compelling portrait of God and His plan. It is an invitation to believe and rejoice! We look forward to that time when He will reveal all truth to us—a time after the trial of our faith.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (I Cor. 13:11-12).
I heartily recommend Terryl Given’s Letter to a Doubter. See: https://terrylgivens.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Letter-to-a-Doubter.pdf
Givens, T. L. (2015). Wrestling the angel: The foundations of Mormon thought: Cosmos, God, humanity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful recommendations for this article.
You can buy a copy of Brother Goddard’s newest book, Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth, at Deseret Book. You may also be interested in some of his other books such as The Soft-Spoken Parent, Between Parent and Child, or Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.