ON LOVE AND LYING: INTEGRITY, IDENTITY, AND INTERPRETATION IN A PLURALISTIC MORMON CULTURE

Jared Anderson Faith & Knowledge Conference 2011 Duke University Imagine that you are organizing a dinner for your religious community. As you are planning the delicious and healthy menu, you come across a problem: You discover that the majority is allergic to precisely what the minority needs. What do you serve? How do you nourish all, giving to each what is needed without triggering the others?

Here is the quandary as I see it: On one hand, the spirituality enjoyed by most believers works. Within a clear framework of particular religions, God answers prayers, grants miracles of guidance and healing, transforms character. Specific religious beliefs and practices within a particular religious community provide great benefits. On the other hand, I would carefully suggest that a rigorous, critical examination of religion deconstructs every denomination it touches. I do not think it is possible to take seriously both the conclusions of academic investigation and the literal and particular claims of individual religions, though critical inquiry cannot fully challenge spirituality in general. Thus the intractable problem: How do we sustain the straightforward belief of the majority, while addressing the concerns of the minority who take the path of critical and historical investigation? Unprecedented access to information and a “google generation” predisposed to search it out makes this a crisis we must address immediately. On a personal level, this is where we must balance love and lying, factor in integrity and interpretation.

This paper will be unavoidably personal, as I take seriously the lack of a programmatic “right answer” to this inherently insoluble paradox. I can only share how I have negotiated these tensions in a satisfying and productive way, and make observations and suggestions based on my experience. I would add, however, that I don’t think this paradox needs to be solved, only addressed. I suggest we grapple honestly with the 1

tension between faith and scholarship and move forward with an approach that maximizes the benefits to as many people as possible.

It was teaching World Religions that convinced me that critical examination of religion can only work in one direction. First, I need to distinguish spirituality from exclusive claims of particular denominations. I maintain a firm belief in spirituality and believe that in addition to the primacy of personal experience, scholarship, history, and even scientific investigation can support the reality of spiritual phenomena. On the other hand, there are philosophical, theological, and critical reasons for suspecting the claims specific religions, namely: 1) If there really is a supreme Creator of the Universe who interacts with all things, it is logical that He/She/They would be far beyond our comprehension. 2) Mormon theology (and I would say theology in general) supports the idea that whatever God’s form or nature, God adapts Himself (I use the pronoun flexibly) to our understandings, expectations, and limitations (see 2 Ne. 31:3, Ether 12:39; D&C 29:33; 50:12; 88:46, which all imply that God speaks to us in a way we will understand more than the way “things really are”). 3) Finally and significantly, study of the religions of the world and human history demonstrates that humans conceptualize gods and the divine in their own image. So whatever the reality of God and spiritual truth may be, human religions clearly constitute cultural constructions designed to meet human needs and reinforce the values and practices of leadership in the community. Most particular religions teach that theirs is the true way, or at least the best way! I believe that scholarship and critical analysis can support a denomination as beneficial or even among the best, but not the “Only True Church.” So though I love the LDS Church and find Mormon theology, scripture, and lifestyle better than any other religion with which I am familiar, I gently suggest that the idea that Adam and Eve were Mormons and the subsequent story of the apostasy and restoration of truth and authority is untenable. Apologetic arguments and investigation can weaken counterclaims and thereby allow (or create) room to believe, but they cannot, in my view, create an overall theory more plausible than the academic ones they are opposing.

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Seeing value in what may be fiction works for some but not others, and inevitably something is lost. It can be argued that not only do religious myths maintain power in our lives, but that for most people, some of that power is predicated on taking myths literally. Belief in a literal, loving Father you can talk to and will someday return and embrace increases the effectiveness of prayer. Accepting narratives of healing at face value establishes expectation for miracles in our lives. What do we do when certainty is yearned for yet unattainable?

When this intractable conundrum collides with the culture-changing information provided by the internet, the crises of faith and activity ensue. The current approach of evading problems, affirming traditional interpretation, and at most brushing on a veneer of apologetics can propel people into either agnosticism or Gnosticism. Either questioners feel dissatisfied and alienated by a community they often still love, or “Internet Mormons”, like Gnostics of old, read the same texts and attend the same meetings as the majority while secretly coming to radically different conclusions. This is not just an LDS problem; a majority of atheists are under the age of 35. But the literal and exclusive claims of Mormonism intensifies the tension between faith and knowledge.

So how do we proceed? I hope that the Church will increasingly adopt an approach that continues to provide the simple narratives that enable people to enjoy the practical benefits of their religion, but that they will also provide the framework for the more complicated reality. Given the ever increasing chance most people will come across potentially troubling information, this preparation is vital. This is not to say that we should throw the messy picture at everyone! Few if any would want their parents to sit down with them and say “I just wanted to spend a few quality hours with you and tell you every mistake I have ever made.” At the same time, it is critical we all understand our parents are human, so when we come across that journal entry or story, we have the framework to handle it. My other hopes for the Church in general would be that those faithful who are trying to deal with the complex issues be seen as resources rather than being disciplined or marginalized (hopefully this is not happening?) and that every

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priesthood leader is trained to tell the inquisitive: “It is ok to have questions” and “there is more than one way to be a good member of the Church.”

Proper understanding of issues such as the humanity of Church leaders, the role of agency, the influence of personal expectation and cultural presuppositions on revelations, and human nature in general would both be consistent with a straightforward faith but also prepare the believer for a more complex understanding. This approach would enable the decreasing majority who never comes across further information to better deal with the challenges of life. But for the increasing population who comes across information on the internet or through friends, this preparation would also help the believer both incorporate the new information and help them understand the need for the simple narrative! So ideally he or she would say “I never heard of that before, but I can understand how that fits into my belief and why the simple story accomplishes the purposes of a spiritual life”.

To bring up just one example of how this works, I believe that the 1838 account of the First Vision most likely reflects not what happened to Joseph, but his theology of the time. I believe he had a vision of Moroni, another where Jesus forgave him of his sins, later came to the understanding the members of the Godhead were distinct individuals (and there were a plurality of Gods), and then his 1838 account told a simple, effective story that described what was true in his view, if not what was historical. Given the evidence and precedent we have, can we think of an equally effective narrative for general consumption?

I will turn now to how I apply this perspective in my own life. I actually take a very practical approach to this issue. This is my experience; but I do not desire to export it whole cloth to others. I accept as valid all approaches that work for people, from taking everything at face value, to being reassured by apologists, to tackling primary sources and figuring out what you believe. Each of us must forge our own world view. My main concern is to encourage a worldview that meets spiritual needs but also minimizes vulnerability to new information. The rhetoric of “just ignore disconfirming information,

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be quiet and obey” simply does not resonate with a generation that googles every question, that can reach millions with a blog or YouTube video, and voices its opinion on everything from political debates to American Idol and advertisements.

I try to share information with people based on their desires and preparation. When a member of my ward told me he wanted to learn more about religion, I asked him whether he wanted the Institute approach, or academic approach, and explained each. He replied Institute, and I respect that. In another memorable experience, at the end of missionary exchanges I was having a discussion with one companion and the other Elder said, “Brother Anderson, if what you have is the gift of knowledge, I don’t want it!” I remain realistic of the fact that for the majority of believers, the details simply do not matter. I don’t want to know how my car works; I just want it to get me from point A to point B. I would never want to deconstruct some one's religion so they can’t drive it.

In order to be as honest as possible, I speak with extreme precision. Instead of “Moroni wrote” I can introduce an idea with “In the Book of Moroni we read…” I bear my testimony about how beautiful I find the idea of the Atonement and how I am grateful for the ability to improve my character because of the power of God in my life. I bear my testimony that the Book of Mormon is inspired of God. I do not bring up the fact that I do not necessarily have a testimony of the Atonement, or that I have doubts about the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I speak in such a way that most assume I am agreeing with them, but if people want to hear more about my views, they can ask me and I can explain one-on-one if appropriate.

I would go as far as to say that as a loving last resort, even lying could be justified. When neither precise communication nor tactful silence is an option, and a full honest answer would be destructive to the faith of the listener, I would support a “noble lie”. Some will see this as sophistry or disingenuous, but I see it as prioritizing love and valuing the functionality of religion over full or even representative disclosure in every smallest question. I would also offer the reminder that we negotiate our communication and identities constantly, though we would prefer to avoid the term “lying”. And rightly so,

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since this negotiation of proper sharing is a natural and necessary part of relationships, not to be cavalierly branded as deception. On one hand, we navitage greater or lesser lies and loyalties and integrities constantly, whether we realize it or not. At the same time, it is worth noting that with explicit lies, even justified ones, something is inevitably lost.

Here is how that works for me. I see this as more translation to the worldview and expectations of the listener than outright deception. Our relationships constantly confront us with a “hierarchy of truths”. Though we have all sorts of thoughts and views, still we censor ourselves based on our love for our spouses, or our desire to keep our jobs for example. One vital balance to this approach is we must be sure we are molding the truth out of love, not the desire to deceive or escape consequences. In order to have integrity, we should also feel peaceful with the prospect of explaining the full truth and previous careful sharing of it if the situation demanded it. It is tragic when a spouse or Church cannot accept the truth of our views or natures. But do we then need to abandon the marriage or community? Owning our choice to prioritize relationships over disclosure when necessary can bring peace to painful dissonance. I would add that it is tremendously beneficial to have some individuals or a community where you can be fully honest about your views and identity. Ideally your closest loved ones should be in this inner circle, but either way this is where internet communities can literally be a godsend.

Now that I have bared my perspectives, borne my “nuancimony” if you will, one could confront me with a variety of questions: Aren’t I lying when I answer the temple recommend questions with simple “yes” or “no”? Am I not manifesting a lack of integrity when I speak words that, though technically true, I know very well are being understood differently by my audience? Do I have integrity in my faith community if very few know what I really believe? Am I really a Mormon if those in authority would question that status if they knew the details of my world view?

Though I experience rare sensations of loss where I wish I could be that scholar who despite all his learning still believes the standard stories, I am very happy with my spirituality. I see religion as a symbolic system that points to a reality that, though

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unknowable, really does WORK. Miracles do happen, religion really benefits people, people experience visions and answers to prayers. Religion is a shortcut to accessing metaphysical insight and power few would be able to access otherwise. So I use the Mormon language, for example, to interact with and point toward transcendent principles I do not understand. And for me, the Mormon language and framework works. This is my faith language. These are my people. With this understanding of my faith, I can both be agnostic but also trust in the power of faith, prayer, ordinances, and religion in general, about as much as I did when I accepted things literally.

I think this view even has advantages over a more straightforward acceptance of Mormon theology. I appreciate being able to talk to anyone without knee-jerk prejudgment of “God says that is wrong.” My view of spirituality both encompasses and transcends Mormonism. It makes sense to me that God would give everyone as much truth and saving principles as they will accept. Religion for me is about maximizing Love, Growth, Peace, Joy, and increasing Freedom and Consciousness. As I have said, I think Mormonism does this better than any other religion of which I am aware, and has the potential to do it far better. Further, a more open, even agnostic approach to Mormonism and religion in general preserves benefits while minimizing costs. If Mormonism were not the only true Church, if every point of accepted theology were not true, if we ceased to exist upon death, would we still make the same choices? I hope so. If not, it is worth reevaluating such a risky gamble. We must make religion our own, forge our own understanding and meaning that both respects and justifies our understanding of spiritual reality.

I am also acutely aware that not everyone sees things as I do, however. So in my discussions with individuals and groups, I try to speak in such a way that they will receive the same meaning and message as I receive with my nuanced views and beliefs. In translation, there is formal equivalence with word for word correspondence, and dynamic equivalence with thought for thought correspondence. But the goal of translation is to effect in the reader or listener of the target language the same feeling and experience enjoyed by the original audience in the source language. For me, this is how

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love, lying, integrity and interpretation fit together. I translate what I think and feel based on my best understanding of where my audience is, motivated by love. I hold beliefs and spirituality sacred, both mine and those of others. If I know that my words and experiences will be interpreted differently by my listener in such a way it does not respect the sacred nature of our differences, to show integrity to love and individuality I will translate myself in such a way so that my listener gets my “deep meaning”, even if on the surface I must translate yes to no and no to yes.

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