Thursday, August 18, 2011

What Kind Of Faith Is That?

Even when I was an active Mormon I always thought the little kids who "bore their testimonies" on the first Sunday of every month were ridiculous.  They obviously hadn't a clue what they were talking about.  Even worse were the parents who took--or sometimes almost dragged--those little moppets up there and whispered the words in their ears.  I was in one ward where the bishop began the meeting by reading a letter from I think it was the First Presidency about that very thing, saying that little kids should not be encouraged to do it.  And right after the bishop sat down, guess what happened?  Yep.  Some airheaded male Primary teacher got up and excitedly told everybody how he had challenged every six year old in his class to come up and give their "testimony."  And they all got up and marched to the front and repeated the same handful of stock phrases.  And I rolled my eyes and thought "well, so much for listening to the prophet."

Over the years I learned to really hate those first Sundays.  What I considered real spiritual inspiration seemed to get harder and harder to find.  Those stretches of awkward silence between speakers got longer and longer.  Yet too often there was the rush to the front toward the end of the meeting with the result that the bishop always let the meeting run over.  Just once I would have paid serious money to have a bishop stand up at the actual time he'd said the meeting would end, and tell everybody still waiting to speak that they were just gonna have to save it till next time.

So what does all of that have to do with anything, or the title of this post?  This is what.  Almost without exception those "testimonies" were repetitions of a handful of stock phrases that I knew wouldn't stand up to any actual objective critical examination.  I had a growing sense of unease with "the rest of the story" that I knew would never be mentioned from a Mormon pulpit.  Things like the Book of Mormon anachronisms and the DNA issue, implications of the accurate translation of the Book of Abraham, the major shifts in what's been considered essential doctrine while all the time claiming revealed truth, and so on.

Just as much though was the attitude that objective examination of church teachings and history was something to be feared and avoided.  Don't read "anti-Mormon literature"!  It will destroy your testimony!  Stick with what the Church teaches!  For a long time I went along.  But then gradually I realized that truth doesn't need to be scared.  It can withstand rigorous examination.  And that included examining all the LDS claims to legitimacy and primacy without an agenda or pre-determined conclusions.  Just "what does the evidence support"?  If it's all true, why should the church fear that kind of examination?  And if it's not true, don't adherents deserve to know that?  How strong or robust is a faith that insists on teaching even its little kids to think in ways that make them feel guilty for intellectual exploration, or fear honest inquiry?

Oh I'm sure lots of Mormons would say No no no, that doesn't happen, the church never restricts freedom of inquiry.  Well maybe not officially or explicitly.  And not so much anymore.  But when I was a kid, oh yeah.  Very blunt warnings.  Now that the Internet has robbed the church of control of its own history and messaging, it has to change its approach, no choice.  But the things it claims and defends are unchanged.  And so are my questions.  Why the need to scare members, especially impressionable young ones, away from asking unrestricted questions?  Why the insistence on "fake it till you make it" testimonies?  That's really the message of Boyd Packer's "a testimony is found in the bearing of it."  But isn't that just a fancy way of saying "if you repeat something enough times you'll start to believe it"?  And what if it's a belief that's totally contradicted by actual facts?  Just because you believe something doesn't make it any more or less true, objectively speaking.  Yet that's the approach for Mormon "testimonies" and the now-more-subtle-but-still-potent official pattern of trying to scare Mormons away from a truly objective examination of their own religious history.  Truth shouldn't need such "protections." 

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