This is a guest post by Tom Stringham, who is a returned missionary and student of economics and mathematics at the University of Calgary. He keeps a blog at VirtuousSociety.com, and is on the editorial staff at Hustings.ca and PrinceArthurHerald.com.
True religion, whenever it has existed on the earth, has always had its enemies. Over the period of history recorded in the scriptures, these enemies often took the form of foreign armies, oppressive governments or brazen idolaters. The word “enemy” implies more than a passive conflict with the church—an enemy is usually conscious of his animosity.
If there is a war being waged against the Lord’s church today, it is being waged as a campaign of op-eds, podcast interviews, digital monologues and legal briefs. While the battlefield of the religious world is strewn with many inanimate and inadvertent obstacles, the church also has antagonists, and the method of the modern religious antagonist is rational discourse, or as Jeff G. wrote in an excellent analysis last year, critical discourse.
O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men!
Faithful Mormon bloggers and commentators respond to discourse mainly with discourse, at least in the online world. As a result, they are often failing to productively engage their opponents within and without the church. This isn’t to say they don’t mean well. But many writers have allowed the church’s enemies to set the terms of engagement. Under those terms, argument is preferable to testimony, and analysis is better than scripture. In other words, believing intellectuals are falling short because they have not openly challenged the importance of discourse itself by supplanting it with the word of God through scripture, His servants or our own inspired testimony.
“Vainness” and “foolishness” are the right words, for the church’s enemies as well as its misguided defenders, as I know from experience. As a missionary in Oregon, I had only six months left of my two-year service by the time I realized that part of my inability to successfully impart the message of the gospel was that I was relying, very vainly and very foolishly, on my own ability to argue. When an investigator asked a difficult question, I would often respond at length, unloading on the poor student all of my own contemplations on the issue. My thoughts weren’t incorrect or harmful, but I eventually discovered that they meant much less to the investigator than the witness of a testimony, or a verse of scripture.
When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God
The elevation of reason to wisdom, symbolized for our civilization in the Enlightenment of the 18th century, has occurred too much in our own hearts. For fear of appearing unintelligent to our theological interlocutors, we tend to rest upon mere rationality, avoiding frank testimony or appeals to the words of prophets. The danger here is that we begin to avoid testifying or referencing scripture at all, even to those who need to hear it most. Once we come to this point, we are hearkening more to the wisdom of men than the counsel of God.
We would do better to respond to challenges the way that Jacob, the highly intelligent Nephite teacher, responded to Sherem, who had a “perfect knowledge of the language of the people” and “much power of speech”. After Sherem assaulted the doctrine of Christ, Jacob witnessed: “I say unto you that none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ. And this is not all—it has been made manifest unto me … I know if there should be no atonement made all mankind must be lost.”
I witness that the doctrine of Christ is true, and that testimony of this doctrine will touch the hearts of anyone in a spiritual position to hear it.
They set it aside, supposing they know of themselves
Some members of the church have become its enemies, or at least have nurtured a less-than-total commitment to one side or the other. This usually happens when church members develop an affection for a particular secular ideology.
Most enemies of the church, while they would probably disagree, have not replaced the church’s orthodoxy with a general open-mindedness. On the contrary, they have almost always become an intellectual slave to some modern orthodoxy. The most pervasive of these are perhaps individualism and rationalism—try telling the average Millennial they have a duty to their deceased ancestors or that there is no such thing as their “authentic self” (apart from, perhaps, the natural man). Or telling a college student that tradition should have as much a place at the table as critical reason in the political arena.
Any secular orthodoxy can supplant true religion, including ideologies like modern progressivism (think members who revolt over same-sex marriage) or conservatism (members who reject the church’s stands on the environment or immigration).
But these heresies involve, at their root, a sort of self-worship. Very few members reject a teaching of the prophet without replacing it by their own teaching. Someone who spurns the church on homosexuality is not just rejecting prophetic infallibility—they are necessarily saying that prophetic fallibility is greater than their own.
The duty of Mormon writers is not to forget that our message is a gospel of repentance as opposed to a gospel of affirmation, to borrow a phrase of a friend of mine.
Wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not, and they shall perish.
Amidst endless discourse it’s easy to forget the profoundly spiritual consequences of setting aside the word of God as revealed through the Church of Jesus Christ. God gave the opening section of the Doctrine and Covenants to Joseph Smith as a warning:
The day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people … They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god.
Following the prophet, and nurturing faith in the teachings of the Lord by his prophets and apostles, are indeed commandments. The consequence for spurning these commandments to “walk in our own way” is spiritual death; separation from God.
Faithful commentators often misguidedly respond to doubters as if doubt is only an intellectual phenomenon. In fact, doubt is also a spiritual weakness, and one that can be healed by the atonement of Jesus Christ, if there exists sufficient humility to repent. I say this not as a mere assertion, but as a testimony of my own experience, when I rejected almost all of the teachings of the church for at least two years in my late teens, and was later healed by repentance, and not by persuasive discourse. As Moroni teaches, the Lord will make weak things strong unto us, and as Alma teaches, Christ suffered for every manner of affliction.
But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.
What I’ve written requires a few caveats. Of course, it’s not bad to be an intellectual, or to be well-read, or even to be good at arguing. There’s a place for discourse about church teachings. Furthermore, doubt is something that afflicts many of us, and it should be responded to sensitively. But if I made these caveats the focus of my appeal, I would be preaching to the choir. The blogosphere is out of balance, and it is faith and credulity that will balance the scale—not more doubt and skepticism.
I testify that each of us are spiritual children of a perfect God, and that he loved us enough to send Jesus Christ to live and die for us. I believe that Christ’s kingdom is on the earth, and that it is called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I testify that the Lord’s servants are both unusually wise and uniquely positioned to receive his revelations for the world. I know that there is much good learning to be had in the world, but that it only becomes wisdom to us when we hearken to the Lord’s counsel. And I promise that the only path to peace in this world and eternal life in the next is by way of Jesus Christ and his church.