The Wilderness of Faith
Edited by John Sillito
At Home at Sea:
Confessions of a Cultural Mormon
I grew up believing that if I ever lost my testimony, the world would come to an end. That was foolish, of course, because a testimony is simply a truth about my beliefs and judgments about life. I can only “lose my testimony” when I lose consciousness. But what I meant then was that if I no longer believed that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and Ezra Taft Benson is a living prophet today—if I no longer believed those things—I would fall into apostasy, and there is an incredibly powerful aura of “evil” surrounding apostasy. Apostasy is a black hole. If you fall into apostasy, everything will come crashing down and your whole life will be in ruins. Apostates lie, cheat, and steal; apostates fornicate, adulterate, and do drugs.
The recommended preventative for apostasy is faith. Alma says that we should plant our seeds in faith. Then if the seed is good, it will grow and our faith will be increased. I would add, stay with that tree as long as it produces fruit and you find the fruit nourishing. But if despite your best efforts the tree withers or its fruit sours, you might try doubt. Until you doubt that the old tree will ever produce again or that it is the only true and living tree upon the face of the whole earth, you probably won’t try a different solution.
Have faith to doubt. Liberals gesture at doubt. They “question.” But few dare to really doubt. Jesus said, “Seek, and ye [p.104] shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” In search of truth I came up against doubt. I knocked on the door. It opened. I walked in and found nothing. Nothing. Just me. No bogeyman to drag me down to hell, no slippery slope to crime and debauchery, just me. I continued to the next door. I knocked. It opened. I walked in. Nothing there either. Just me. And so on, door after door, opening windows and portals, letting the sun shine in and fresh breezes blow. Doubt produces nothing, and that is a valuable contribution. It cleans out the clutter. Then you can get down to the real business of life: creating.
For me real theology is necessarily autobiographical. At this point, therefore, I should tell you something about my background and personal experience. I was born Mormon, fourth or fifth generation on both sides. My father was a returned missionary as was his father; both of my mother’s parents had served on general boards; and growing up in Utah, my friends and acquaintances were also Mormon. I learned why things are the way they are and what behaviors are acceptable from my family and culture. And I gained the approval of parents and peers by conforming to those standards.
Early morning seminary was the first setting where I was conscious of being not only accepted but also valued as a member of society. Our teacher was Richard Marshall, and the course was the Book of Mormon. Brother Marshall’s enthusiasm was infectious, and he instilled in me a passionate interest in the Book of Mormon. Reading it cover to cover was a rite of passage initiating me into the adult world, and obtaining a testimony of its divinity certified my maturity. I thought that if I could master the scriptures I would not only keep a commandment, but I would learn how to win blessings from God that would enable me to achieve in all aspects of my life. In the next four years I read the Book of Mormon five more times, the Old and New Testaments twice, the Doctrine and Covenants twice, the Articles of Faith, Jesus the Christ, and other popular church books. At eighteen I was so anxious to be a missionary that I could think of little else, and arrangements were made for me to work the summer for Truman Madsen in the New England Mission.
By the time I was old enough to be officially called as a missionary, Boyd K. Packer had replaced Truman as president. The difference in style could not have been greater—Madsen’s was a world of evangelical fervor and spiritual gifts, Packer’s of [p.105] unquestioned commitment to priesthood authority. Madsen was the exemplar of my years as an enthusiast, Packer my first model of a true believer.
President Packer’s favorite themes were the responsibilities and prerogatives of the priesthood, his favorite metaphors militaristic. The priesthood was the army of God. God communicated his orders to the troops through the priesthood chain of command. We foot soldiers had only one responsibility—to follow our file leaders. As long as we followed this order of priesthood, the gates of hell could not prevail against us.
After a year in the mission office, I was given an opportunity to demonstrate my understanding of this doctrine. My companion and I were driving President Packer and Henry D. Taylor to Logan International Airport. “Brother Kenney,” Elder Packer asked, “what would you do if your mission president asked you to do something that you did not understand—like jump in a lake?”
“I would do it. I would jump in the lake.”
“But what if it wasn’t just something you weren’t sure about but was something you thought was wrong?”
I knew the answer, but for the first time sensed it might be a lie. “I would do it anyway.”
“Even if you thought it was wrong?”
“Yes, because the mission president has responsibility for the entire mission, and the Lord will hold him accountable. My duty, my stewardship, is to follow my priesthood leader.”
That experience was the beginning of my transition from Latter-day Saint to liberal Mormon. Somewhere near the surface of my consciousness, I knew that neither the priesthood nor the church could come between me and God, between me and my personal accountability.
At the University of Utah’s Institute of Religion, Reed Durham presided over my early years as a liberal. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, Reed introduced his students to controversial issues in church history, always with ample documentation and plausible interpretations—and he always allowed his students to draw their own conclusions. I like that. I had learned behavioral management from President Packer. I learned historical perspective from Brother Durham. Doctrines did not fall from heaven fully formed but emerged in social context and were adapted by human hands to [p.106] fit the circumstances. God necessarily spoke in terms that could be understood by human beings with finite conceptual abilities. Even prophets process revelation through human organs, the result not always being divine. With my new understanding, God’s fingerprints were less clearly visible, but the opportunities for human participation were magnified. It was an exciting prospect for me. I decided to obtain a degree in theology and become an institute teacher. I was accepted at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), a consortium of nine Catholic and Protestant seminaries that functioned as Berkeley’s graduate school of religion.
During my years at GTU, I was constantly struck by the meticulous care and sensitivity of biblical scholars, by the richness of their interpretation. Biblical theology was milk and honey to my taste. Church manuals, which had never been particularly palatable, became even harder to swallow, and favorite Book of Mormon passages were eclipsed by deeper themes, more eloquently expressed in the Bible. In American historical theology, I discovered thinkers spanning three centuries who captured my imagination as no Mormon writer ever had. I felt shame for the paucity of the Mormon intellectual tradition. We who claim the glory of God is intelligence seem to value it so lightly.
Though I was actively involved in the student ward, my best friend was a Roman Catholic priest, Al Ede. Ten or fifteen years my senior, Al had grown up in Dubuque and had immersed himself in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Then came the Second Vatican Council, and like so many conservative Catholics, Al’s life was transformed. He understood full well the struggles I was going through. Like me Al had come to GTU to obtain a doctorate in American historical theology. He also served in a multi-ethnic parish in Fremont, and one week he invited me down to meet his people. It was the first non-Mormon service I had ever attended. Naturally I took all my Mormon judgments about the sterility of formal liturgy. What a surprise! Al delivered a powerful sermon, members addressed one another with love and affection, and wonderfully contemporary religious songs were beautifully performed in a folk song idiom, all building to a sacred and joyful celebration of the eucharist. From beginning to end it was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
[p.107] I stood with Al at the door as his parishioners left the service. I will never forget the look in their eyes as they greeted and embraced him. Those people—Philipino, Portuguese, Mexican, Italian, and Caucasian—were truly blessed to be served by this man of God, and so was I. Our lives were uplifted and enriched by his words, his caring, his presence. Four years later, administering the eucharist in Dubuque, Al suddenly collapsed. An aneurysm in his brain. He died almost instantly, and a light went out in my life. But through my association with a Catholic priest named Al, I learned that God is found not in thunderbolts, dogmas, and commandments but in love and service, commitment and joy.
Our principal teacher and mentor was John Dillenberger, who had just stepped down after ten years as president of GTU. Dillenberger had been a student of Paul Tillich—and a teacher of Truman Madsen. After graduating from Union Theological Seminary and Columbia, Dillenberger had taught at Union, Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, and Drew and then brought together nine Catholic and Protestant seminaries to form the Graduate Theological Union. He had made his academic reputation as a Luther expert, and his anthologies of Luther and Calvin writings are standard textbooks.
For three years I took nearly every class he taught. He assigned only primary sources—church fathers, scholastics, reformers, puritans, revivalists, transcendentalists, liberals, social gospelers, neo-orthodox, moderns, and post-moderns. Four to seven hundred pages a week. I was stunned. Week after week I was exposed to theologians who had addressed core issues in vastly different contexts but all with a breadth of vision and command of the tradition unknown in my Mormon experience. Dillenberger began each class with historical and biographical background and then initiated discussion. He approached each reading fresh, open to new possibilities from his students. His own analyses were brilliant, never presented as the final word but as openings to new direction.
One day near the end of my first quarter, we left class together. He headed for his office and I for another class in the same direction. He wanted to know how I was getting along. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he changed the subject. He reminisced about his student days. When Tillich went on speaking tours, he let Dillenberger use his campus office. As he talked, he pulled a ring of [p.108] keys from his pocket and began twisting off one silver key. He would be gone for a week or ten days now, Dillenberger said, handing me the key. My apartment was some distance from school, and I was welcome to use his office. No dove descended, and there was no voice from heaven, but I wouldn’t have noticed. I had come on a pilgrimage to the temple of knowledge and the gatekeeper not only welcomed me in, he handed me the key. Of course, this was only my experience. When I reminded him of the incident years later, Dillenberger had forgotten it completely.
Nevertheless we visited and lunched together often, and Peggy Fletcher, Al Ede, and I were always included when the Dillenbergers invited students to their quarterly dinner at their home in the Berkeley hills. I will always be grateful to Jane Dillenberger for opening doors to the visual arts that enrich my life, but in retrospect their greatest gift was community and the opportunity to discover that rather than dividing people into camps, real religion brings people together, real religion transcends differences and flourishes in diversity.
It was the early 1970s, and Vietnam, Watergate, and nuclear weapons were on all of our minds. To my Catholic and Protestant colleagues, church was the center of social activism. They were not only permitted to express themselves on social issues in church, they were expected to speak out and to take action as a Christian obligation. They demonstrated against the war, lobbied against sexism, and sponsored food and clothing drives. My Mormon friends, on the other hand, generally shunned social issues. In Sunday school we praised the steadfastness of our pioneer ancestors. In priesthood we sat through yet another lesson about being member missionaries, while in Relief Society single sisters were reminded of the importance of motherhood.
If there was a God and if he loved us, I had argued on my mission, why would he not call a prophet to guide us in these troubled times as well as anciently? Now that question came back to haunt me. Where was the prophetic spirit for our times? Was it with the Saints, who took out an endowment once a month for someone who had died three or four centuries ago, or with the sinners, demonstrating in the streets against the napalming of living men, women, and children?
[p.109] Who were the real prophets for the modern world? Once Mormon prophets believed “it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.” Once Mormon prophets believed that marriage and sexual relations between consenting adults were no one else’s business. Once Mormon prophets championed the rights of minorities and decried the tyranny of the majority. What had happened to those prophetic oracles? Who were the prophets of sweat shops and child labor laws? Who were the prophets of Selma and Montgomery? Who were the prophets of nuclear disarmament, ecology, and human rights? Had God really copped out on global issues, or was he speaking through non-Mormon channels?
If Mormonism was really going to contribute to the kingdom of God on earth, I concluded, leadership would have to come from the people; it was not going to come from their managers. If members could only see themselves as leading characters rather than as spear carriers in the divine drama, there would be no limit to what might be accomplished. My concept of religion was transformed from a system of revealed doctrine and ordinances to personal values, social renewal, and aesthetic awareness.
For ten years I was an active participant in what I hoped would become a Mormon Renaissance. During those years the issues I had put on the back burner—issues I had been unable to resolve in an orthodox context—gradually moved forward, first pushing orthodox configurations out of position and then eliminating some and elevating others. The following four examples illustrate the nature and scope of these changes.
First, my understanding of scripture and revelation was transformed by biblical studies. Though I had read it several times, much of the Old Testament had remained a sealed book, portraying God and prophets in ways that were incomprehensible to me: God tests Abraham with an order to murder his son; the ingestion of rabbit is forbidden because though they chew a cud, rabbits do not have split hooves; Elisha calls two she-bears out of the woods to devour teasing children; Isaiah wanders around Jerusalem stark naked for three years. What kind of religion is this? A historical religion, I learned, presented in a historical document. Historical documents inevitably reflect points of view no longer shared by the [p.110] modern reader. And one of the pleasures of history is unraveling long-forgotten assumptions of ancient texts.
The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, contains little if anything that does not have a nineteenth-century ring. Equally significant, there are few early nineteenth-century issues not treated in the book. Both are to me sufficient and compelling arguments for its nineteenth-century origin. The book didn’t need gold plates to be prophetic because it addressed the spiritual needs of the people in a way that gave them hope and purpose. It took a stand on controversial issues while maintaining a sense of continuity with tradition. Would that a Mormon could produce a work of comparable value for twentieth-century Saints.
Second, Jesus. The Jesus of my Mormon upbringing had never been a compelling figure. Because God was the father of his body, Jesus could postpone his own death as long as he wanted. He had direct access to angels and could talk with God whenever he wanted. He could perform any miracle he wanted whenever he wanted. He never sinned or did anything wrong. Because he was perfect, only Jesus could satisfy a thing called “the demands of justice.” Enduring excruciating pain, bleeding from every pore and finally giving himself up to crucifixion, Jesus “paid” for everything I would do that was wrong. I would be resurrected and, if I kept his commandments, would not have to suffer for my sins (although trying to keep all those commandments seemed a lot like suffering for my sins).
I liked the parables and beatitudes of Jesus and his emphasis on love and forgiveness, but it was difficult to model my life after a god who became an itinerant miracle worker, who never sinned, and whose crowning achievement was crucifixion and resurrection. Atonement I had to take on faith, though really it was more an intellectual assent, for it never seemed “real” to me.
(A brief digression: It has always seemed strange to me that “eternal principles” like the “demands of justice” are never around when you need them. They have a way of popping back into the pre-existence or leaping forward into eternity when it comes to the nitty-gritty of human life. They seem “operative” only as theological constructs.)
On the other hand the Jesus described by biblical scholarship came alive as a powerful manifestation of God’s relationship [p.111] to humankind. Paul and the authors of Mark and John knew nothing of the virgin birth. For them Jesus was fully human, struggling with temptation, identifying with sinners, speaking of God not as lawgiver or commander but as a loving Father, who pardons sinners and welcomes the unwashed. In raising Jesus from the dead, God disclosed the true nature of his participation in the human condition. In Jesus, God invites all to celebrate the reconciliation of human and divine.
Third, the plan of salvation. According to Mormon theology, God first lost a third of his progeny to Satan; then he set up mortality as probation for the remaining two-thirds. The catch was that no one would remember their pre-existence, and hardly any would be told the standards by which we would be judged. The vast majority would pass through this life without the foggiest idea of what it was all about. Their main purpose would be to “obtain a body,” of which they would soon be deprived for several thousands or millions of years and which would someday be given back to them, only it wouldn’t be the same body, it would be a resurrected body, so the experience of having a body, if they remembered it at all after all those eons of time, would really be quite different.
I can see why martyrdom-seeking Christians and fourteenth-century serfs experienced life as a test, but it has never appealed to me. Surely God, the father of my spirit, had a pretty good idea of what I was like before I came here, and if I couldn’t accept God’s judgment in the pre-existence, how will mortality improve my attitude? Don’t all those babies born in disease-ridden cultures have an unfair opportunity to die before hormones and the philosophies of the world overpower them?
This “plan of salvation” minimizes mortality for nearly everyone but Mormons and predisposes God’s “elect” to arrogance. For me life is too sacred to be trivialized in this fashion. I am still constructing my own “plan,” and at this stage it is admittedly vague. But the principal components are Mormon in character: “joy” or its near-equivalent is the purpose of life, and Alma’s “restoration” principle—we get what we create—the governing axiom; men and women are free agents with an equal opportunity to create meaning and value for themselves despite the inequity of circumstances.
Finally, the Mormon emphasis on commandment-keeping showed me the inadequacy of ethical behavior alone as means to a [p.112] rich and rewarding life. There are so many “oughts” and “shoulds” that there is precious little time or energy for the “joy” that all this commandment-keeping is supposed to produce. “Faithful,” “obedient,” “long-suffering,” “hard-working,” “supportive” are the watchwords, the attributes of Latter-day Saints on the road to perfection. In contrast, “spontaneous,” “imaginative,” “creative,” “passionate,” “innovative,” and “playful” are secular, inferior—attributes of those who have lost the way. I have concluded that if I do live forever, I would rather spend eternity with the Mozarts and Tina Turners of the terrestrial kingdom than all the Brother Browns of the celestial.
In retrospect these observations seem so simple that it is sometimes difficult to understand why I did not see them sooner. The answer is that it served me not to see them. As a child I had seized the iron rod and followed it along the straight and narrow path. Back and forth, back and forth, forth and back. As long as I believed in Joseph and the plates, in priesthood and commandments, in pre-existence and the plan of salvation—as long as I believed in these things my life had meaning and structure, and I was approved by my family and culture.
But the straight and narrow path was also rather short, I found, and led to a dreary plain. As I developed a stronger sense of self, when I no longer relied on the church for personal identity, I began to see in the distance an oasis. I determined to take a little trip to see what I could see, and packing my Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants in my knapsack, set out for the oasis, with the full intention of returning to my home with exotic treasures to benefit my people.
The oasis proved to be everything I had dreamed of and more. It was filled with all manner of fruit to nourish the soul and please the senses. There were gorgeous panoramas, soft summer breezes, and crystal clear nights. I drank long and deep from liberal waters, and it was good. As I became more aware of alternatives and gained confidence in my abilities to sort it all out, I realized I had left orthodoxy behind for good. But until I no longer needed the Book of Mormon to be the word of God, until I no longer needed someone else to get God’s answers for me, I could not let go and so could not create anything else.
[p.113] Others grow in orthodox ways. They find their lives exciting, productive, and fulfilled in an orthodox context. I respect their experience. I only speak of my own.
Eventually liberalism heightened my capacities and stimulated me to seek promised lands beyond the seas. John Dillenberger once described faith as being at home at sea. There is no straight and narrow path on the open sea, no iron rod—and there are no guided tours. I have made a few voyages on open seas since becoming a cultural Mormon, each time returning with the feeling that I had come closer to the source of it all. The source, I know, is not “out there”; it is “in here,” and I seem to come closer the farther I go. Each time I leave, it is with greater appreciation for the iron rod that brought me to a vision of the oasis and with gratitude for my friends there.
To be sure, seafaring faith does not come without a price. In addition to the ambiguities of my connection to Mormonism, my views have caused deep concern among orthodox members of my family. They are worried about my personal welfare and the future of our family in the next life. I know how deeply that concern is felt. My eight- and ten-year-old daughters believe their daddy isn’t a real Mormon and won’t go to heaven. No one has told them that directly, but it is a conclusion readily drawn from Primary lessons and sacrament meeting talks. It saddens me that my daughters think their father doesn’t measure up.
During the course of my voyages, I have discovered some constellations that have served to guide me. I share them now for whatever value they may have to you.
First is the primacy of personal experience. It is often said that you cannot live on borrowed light. Mormonism even had its genesis in the saying that God gives liberally to all who seek. Subjugating personal experience to the authority of scripture or priesthood leaders is a denial of this fundamental principle. Whether the subjugation is a conscious response to a so-called test of faith or subconscious self-deception, it is a lie. And it is cowardice to live a lie, not humility; and emotional dishonesty to remain willfully ignorant of one’s own experience. The time I spend following someone else’s star or marching to someone else’s drum is time and opportunity lost forever.
[p.114] Second, I believe that I alone determine the quality of my life. There have been times when life seemed very painful and I felt very inadequate; there have been times when life seemed joyful and I completely competent. The circumstances were not all that different; the difference was how I chose to experience them.
Third, I believe that I am connected to all human beings who are living, have lived, or will live on this earth. And at times I also sense a connection to the earth and the sky, the flowers and the stars. This connection leads me to seek the welfare of others, to celebrate their successes and mourn their losses. As a cultural Mormon, I sometimes feel like a man without a country, but my world has expanded so that I feel more kinship with all of humankind and with the planet we share than I ever did before.
Fourth, I call that which supports and sustains life, which connects and draws us together, God; and I experience God in goodness, truth, and beauty. These virtues are for me inseparable, that which is good being also inherently true and beautiful, and vice versa. In the kingdom of God, truth is not hostage to tradition, beauty does not serve some other purpose, goodness is not contingent on belief. Rather all three have full freedom of expression and are valued in all their diverse manifestations.
Finally my life is fulfilling as long as I am actively pursuing a dream or committed to a specific purpose. In leaving orthodoxy I gave up a ready-made cause that gave my life meaning; I gave up a powerful support system. I have had to define my own dreams, my own reasons for being. That has been difficult, for I am not a skilled creator, but I am working at it.
Jesus is reported to have said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” With freedom comes responsibility, not the responsibility of slaves, who have a “duty” to obey their masters, but the responsibility, the opportunity, of the free: to choose, to create, to make a difference in this world. Creation is God’s first act. Of all God’s people, Mormons, who aspire to become gods, should be creative.
God’s second act is reconciliation—sometimes called atonement. Only when I let go of God as commandment-giver, as judge, and embrace a God of love and unconditional forgiveness do I experience reconciliation. When I am forgiving and loving of myself, I am more loving, more forgiving, more available to others.[p.115] Unfortunately, although I am a clumsy creator, my attempts at reconciliation often seem downright hopeless. I work at it—but that is another paper. God’s third act is transformation—resurrection, if you will, and that is also another paper.
For the purposes of this article it is enough to know that I am the master of my ship, that I am free to choose both my destination and the quality of the voyage. I am free to sail to faraway lands or remain safely anchored at the dock. God will not choose for me. I choose to sail, to sail as far and as widely as I can. Through summer doldrums and wintry blasts, I am learning to “fear no evil,” for God, hidden and revealed, supports, sustains, and surprises, and makes life interesting. I am beginning to feel at home at sea.[p.117]