Back on October 29, 2011, I wrote a post attempting to summarize the “Theological Liberal” narrative “as it saw itself” and therefore tried to write about it in a wholly positive way as best I could.
But that post really only touched on the points of Liberal Theology that are considered the most positive aspects and are typically trotted out for public consumption.
As I did this post on John Dehlin, the thought occurred to me that my understanding of Liberal Theology came substantially from my time at Mormon Matters. The three biggest influences were Clay Whipkey and John Hamer – the two “open” theological liberals that didn’t mind talking about their beliefs – and John Dehlin himself, who is not as open, but not exactly closed either. John, in particular, pointed me to Karen Armstrong’s book, which taught me quite a bit. (See also my comprehensive response to her book.)
These three weren’t the only sources. I could mention DougG, Joe Geisner, Matt Thurston, Todd Compton (from his book and website), Kaimi Wegner, TT and several others who, while shy about their beliefs still at least offer a lot of information about what they don’t believe that helped to shape my understanding of Liberal Theology as actually practiced by real life liberals.
But honestly, I’m hesitant here to even use the term Liberal Theology. For one thing, every time I use that term I get people at BCC mad at me even though I didn’t have them in mind at all. For one thing, “liberal” is sometimes a synonym for “non-believing” and sometimes means something more like “a bit unorthodox.” In fact, sometimes it means nothing more than “not a fundamentalist.” In a later post I mentioned that “liberal” is sometimes more defined as “concentrating on how religion affects human beings positively” though somewhat ironically, the attempt to do this often ends up removing the positives out of the religion. I bemoaned that this definition casts a net too wide and the result is a word that has no value. Nevertheless, there seems to be two overlapping kinds of “religious liberals”:
- Believing Liberal Mormons – those that are liberal in many aspects (perhaps agreeing with gay marriage) but still accept the defining truth claims of the Church
- Other Liberal Mormons – those that reject some or all the defining the truth claims of the LDS Church.
But what does that second group believe? Well, honestly, they probably don’t all believe the same things at all. They are united by what they reject, not what they believe.
But there does seem to be a common thread even among them. What I’ve done below is I imagined an interview between someone in group 2, but they are relatively open about their beliefs (like Clay Whipkey and John Hamer were most of the time). If I were to ask them the hard questions about their beliefs, how might they answer it?
I do my honest best to ‘defend’ this view-point and cast it in a positive light. Nevertheless, I am ultimately putting words in the mouth of a viewpoint I don’t myself hold. Rather than get mad at me over this, if you disagree with what I’ve written, at least give me credit for the attempt to understand another viewpoint and make comments on what you think I’ve got wrong and where it could be improved.
My goal here isn’t to criticize this point of view in this post – though I reserve the right to criticize it later in future posts. My goal is merely to understand where a John Dehlin, Clay Whipkey, John Hamer, or DougG might be coming from — as best I can.
An Imagined Interview with a Type 2 Liberal Mormon
Bruce: Is the LDS Church “True?”
Mormon Matters Martin: I consider this question problematic. I certainly do feel the LDS Church is accepted of God and inspired. I don’t hold that it is God’s intention that everyone join the LDS Church, but even conservative believers often believe that. Conservative believers often believe that God wouldn’t intend for everyone in every circumstance to be ready right off the bat for the LDS church. I believe something like that. The LDS church is a great fit for many people and might even be “the truest church” for them. But maybe not for others.
Bruce: Is there a literal God?
Martin: I would not come at this question the way a conservative believer would. A conservative believer likely sees the question of God’s existence as being the most important question of all, and then having determined for themselves if they believe there is a God, they then try to ascertain what God’s will is (depending on the religion, perhaps using meditation, Bible study, Pentecostal experiences, personal revelation, etc.) I come at this question from the stand point of shared morality. Everyone in the world can sense or feel that there is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the universe. This is a sort of spiritual or divine experience. A when we really get down to it – when all the facts are in – we find that people tend to share very similar moral ideals. Treat people well, do not cause harm, make the world a better place, be compassionate, do not lie or cheat, be honest, etc. Conservative believer call this “Light of Christ” and I do not reject that as a legitimate label. Our shared morality is God’s voice to us. So our moral feelings are the real starting point for hearing God’s voice. And certainly morality is literal and real. So therefore God is literal and real. And this is why I believe God can be found in all religions. When it comes down to it, all religions teach the same moral values. And isn’t this the true purpose of religion?
Bruce: Okay, but is God a person?
Martin: I see this as a less important question. Sure, God might well be a person. I would have little problem with accepting that about God and I’m even open to the possibility that God has a body. On the other hand, perhaps God is more like a moral force in the world. After all, it is our morality through which we experience God. Maybe the universe itself has a moral force (or God) wired into it at all levels. I could accept this view of God also.
Bruce: Okay, but if God isn’t a person, doesn’t that affect things like if there is an afterlife?
Martin: Sure. I certainly hope that there is an afterlife. Isn’t that what conservative Mormons believe too? Aren’t we to hope for such things? That would be fantastic if there was a personal God that build a wonderful heaven for everyone and we got to see all our loved ones together. But maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about that. Isn’t doing God’s will and following his voice the more important thing? What type of heaven would it be if we only were charitable and compassionate for the sake of going there? So why not start with charity and compassion instead and concentrate on that for its own sake and then we’ll see what happens in the afterlife?
Bruce: Isn’t the above really just a backhanded way of talking about Atheism but with theistic labels?
Martin: Well, atheists do believe in morality as much as people who believe in God, for sure. It’s never been true that you have to believe in God to be a good person. So, I suppose in a sense atheists also believe in a sort of moral force. And I suppose atheists – while they don’t usually believe in an afterlife – they would hardly be upset if there was one and they got to see lost loved one’s again. But there are definite differences between an atheist and my views. For starters, I am quite open to a very literal personal God and atheists are not.
Bruce: Okay, but then isn’t the only real difference between your beliefs and “Non-Literal Theism” that you are “open” to it being literal?
Martin: Well, what’s wrong with Non-Literal Theism? If there is a literal personal God, don’t you think he’d be pretty happy with someone who sees the good in the world as being “God” and then tries to live their lives by it? And isn’t it true that Non-Literal Theism is distinct from Atheism in how it views the world, in how it values religious practice, and in how it treats the sacred? In these and other ways, Non-Literal Theism has more in common with more Traditional Theism than with Atheism. So we could do worse. But I still don’t view myself as a Non-Literal Theist for much the same reason I don’t view myself as an Atheist. Namely, because I am open to the existence of a very literal personal God. But ultimately, as I said above, the existence of God is a lesser question. I believe that even God wouldn’t want that question to be the primary focus of religion. The primary focus is “Love thy Neighbor.”
Bruce: Do you want the LDS Church to be successful?
Martin: Yes, of course I do. In fact, that’s really what people like me are all about. The Church has given such a whitewashed view of its history that it created a sort of cartoony view of what Joseph Smith and other LDS Leaders were really like. When members of the church innocently believe in this Sunday School version of history and then smack into reality as contained in books like Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History they lose their testimony an d feel betrayed and angry. It is an unnecessarily painful experience that the Church could have avoided. By making the fact available, people can then choose for themselves what and how to believe. Many will learn to accept the true history of the Church and stay in the Church. Some will believe more like me, but many will stay as fairly traditional believers.
People don’t really leave the Church because of “sin” (such as not keeping the Word of Wisdom) as the LDS church leaders have taught, but they do leave the Church because they see factual or moral issues in the Church’s history. So by putting the facts out there and helping people learn about them, I hope to stop this painful erosion from the LDS Church that is going on.
Further, the LDS Church too often drives people away that don’t ‘fit the mold.’ Whether we’re talking about Intellectuals that value studying the Church’s true history, scholar’s that maybe can’t accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon, single women or men that don’t fit the ‘family model’ that the Church primarily preaches to, homosexuals that aren’t able to choose a life of celibacy, transgender individuals that aren’t happy with their birth gender, women that don’t feel it’s right that they don’t hold the priesthood, or for that matter someone who feels uncomfortable because they smoke. There are a myriad of individuals that for various reasons don’t feel accepted in the LDS Church. I would love to see the LDS church be more inclusive of these individuals and more accepting of everyone. Imagine how successful the Church would be if they didn’t drive these potentially valuable members away from the Church and instead brought them into the fold?
Bruce: But if the LDS Church starts accepting people who don’t believe in It, isn’t that a bit weird?
Martin: Why? People can attach themselves to the LDS Church for a variety of reasons. For some, it might be beliefs to be sure. But for others, they may value the culture. For others they might value the rich history. What’s wrong with accepting more people into the Church and not worry about why they want to be part of it? These more “liberal” members have their own value they bring to the table and we’re richer for having them in the Church.
Bruce: Do you believe in priesthood authority?
Martin: Well, yes.
Bruce: Wait, you’re saying you believe angels ordained Joseph Smith with a unique priesthood?
Martin: Well, however it happened, yes, I think the LDS church has a unique priesthood, yes.
Bruce: Wait, you’re saying you believe the LDS Church has authority over Catholics?
Martin: Well, no. Catholicism and other religions are other religions they have their own beliefs and practices. Of course the LDS Church has no “authority” over them. Don’t you think that would be sort of offensive to you if other churches claimed they have authority over LDS People?
Bruce: But if you believe that, then do you really believe the LDS Church leaders are prophets?
Martin: Anyone that teaches the word of God through inspiration is a prophet. And without a doubt the LDS church leaders teach the word of God through inspiration. So they are prophets. If you pay attention to what our Prophets say in General Conference, they overwhelmingly teach good positive ways to live your life. There really isn’t much emphasis on things like Book of Mormon historicity or even on angels coming to deliver the priesthood. It is what the LDS church leaders emphasize that I emphasize.
Bruce: You say you believe the LDS Church is inspired. But do you really believe that God gave revelations to the LDS Church?
Martin: Isn’t that what inspiration is?
Bruce: No, I mean more like visions, visitation of angels, miracles, etc.
Martin: I’m open to that possibility, yes.
Bruce: Honestly, you come across more like a Humanist than a Theist
Martin: Well, I am a humanist! And so what? Isn’t that a good thing? Should we love our neighbor as ourselves and do what is right? How is this different from Humanism at its core? All Mormons are Humanists.
Bruce: But you believe Mormons should not believe things if they just don’t want to
Martin: Yes, I believe in “Menu Mormonism.” The term is meant to conjure up an image of picking what works for you and leaving alone what doesn’t. If you don’t believe the priesthood ban came from God, then don’t believe that. That’s your choice. If you can’t accept that polygamy really came from God, then don’t believe it came from God. I think at heart, we are all Menu Mormon if we are honest with ourselves.
Bruce: But if we down play things like Book of Mormon historicity or visitation of angels, what do we really have left?
Martin: How about a life full of joy? How about our wonderful culture? How about sacred rituals that are spiritually meaningful to us?
Bruce: So you really believe these are the things that make religion work and not the beliefs?
Martin: Well, I think it depends on the person. For some, maybe they need to believe literally. For others, maybe they don’t.
Bruce: Do you believe in keeping the commandments?
Martin: Oh, absolutely! I think that’s part of what makes the LDS Church so wonderful. It’s our clean living, our choice to not smoke or drink alcohol, and the law of chastity that make us special. To say nothing of things like doing your home teaching, reading your scriptures, saying prayers. Sure, I believe and practice all these. I have no desire for the LDS church to give those up. But I do wish we’d be less judgmental of those that aren’t yet able to follow such commandments. They need to feel accepted in Church too. Right now we drive these people away. Can’t we help them feel more accepted so that they aren’t driven away?
Bruce: Give me an example of how we drive them away?
Martin: Well, how about people not being allowed to go to the temple if they smoke. Smoking is an addiction. It’s tough to give up. And is it really a moral issue? Does it really violate “Love they neighbor” in some way if they smoke?
Bruce: So you’re saying the Word of Wisdom shouldn’t be in the Temple Recommend Interview?
Martin: What I’m saying is that we should include all we can to go to the temple. It can benefit anyone.
Bruce: Okay, what about the law of chastity?
Martin: I support the law of chastity.
Bruce: Wait, I once heard John Dehlin do a story about a gay man who was married to a woman. So both decided to stay married and find other sexual partners. John taught this was an ‘exception’ to the law of chastity. What do you think of that?
Martin: I agree with John! The law of chastity is great, but we need to be matured and realistic about human sexuality. People aren’t going to choose to live a celibate life just for the LDS church, and when we demand they do, they leave the church and the church is hurt by that. We should view the law of chastity as an ideal that we know holds exceptions for unique cases. The emphasis, as always, should be on including as many people as possible and “loving they neighbor.” In the case John cites, who is being hurt by the law of chastity being broken here? They are consensual adults are treating each other fairly.
Bruce: Do you support women receiving the priesthood?
Martin: Absolutely! Imagine the incredible female role models we might have if women were prophets and apostles. And how might the Church be improved if women had more say, more input, more visibility. We’d also lose fewer women from the church that way through being more inclusive.
Bruce: But God hasn’t sent a revelation to ordain women to the priesthood
Martin: I believe in the LDS concept of continuing revelation. Look around you. Everywhere our society has progressed since the days of slavery or segregation. Without new revelation, we don’t progress. It is unfortunately that sometimes the LDS Church’s belief in continuing revelation end up causing them to be behind God’s will instead. We believe in continuing revelation, why don’t we use it more often to make the sort of changes that would really benefit everyone?
Bruce: Such As?
Martin: Women receiving the priesthood is what you just asked me about. Gay marriage for another.
Bruce: Do you consider yourself to be a “believing Mormon”?
Martin: Yes, though I may emphasize Mormon doctrines like compassion, charity, and loving thy neighbor over lesser concerns like Book of Mormon historicity or if Jesus was actually resurrected.
Bruce: You mean you don’t believe Jesus was resurrected?
Martin: I’m open to that possibility.
Bruce: But you’re also open to the possibility that Jesus wasn’t resurrected?
Martin: I think this is something people need to study the facts out on and decide for themselves. But personally, I don’t think it is as important as loving your neighbor.
Bruce: But than Jesus isn’t really our savior?
Martin: Well, it depends on what you mean by “savior.” Jesus teachings taught me to value love, compassion, and charity. Does this not “save me” from being selfish or unkind?
Bruce: Looking over your answers, it really looks like to you religion is primarily about ethics and morality
Martin: Isn’t that the case? Isn’t religion really about living a good life, treating other people well, learning to love your neighbor? As I already said, this is the true common thread that runs between all religions. Religion is all about packing ethics and morality and making it more appealing and accessible.
Bruce: But if none of it is literally true, what use is it?
Martin: Well, I’ve already answered that in several ways. Religion teaches you how to live a good life, for example. It also provides you a rich community that is tightly woven. But I think religion doesn’t have to be literal to be useful, no. Parables aren’t literal and they are useful, aren’t they? When I read about the stories of Jesus, or Peter, or Paul, or Nephi, does it matter if these stories are literally true? Can’t I learn from them without them being true? Does it really make a difference if they are true or not? And isn’t that what religion is really about: wrapping up good morals and ethics and delivering them to us through beliefs, teachings, and rituals so that they impact on us spiritually and they become powerful in our lives?
Bruce: Yes, but isn’t it a lie if it’s not true?
Martin: Not at all. There are underlying truths in religious beliefs? Take, for example, the resurrection. Whether or not it literally happened, it is representative of rebirth, of starting over, of not giving up, of the dawn of a new day to start your life. It is Truth even if it’s non-literal. I think all religious teachings are like that. So religion is “true” in that sense.