The church: not just for serial killers.

Which  is more important:  that the church be good or that it be true?  Obviously, we would like it to be both true and good, yet as our leaders remind us, people (including all of us and them) are imperfect and make mistakes.  Likewise, anyone who has looked at all has found that elements at least of the way the church portrays itself are not “true” or accurate.  A recent internet discussion yielded several good points to consider.

Why Good Isn’t Good Enough

If we heavily weight the church being “good,” the problem is that we are capable of being good on our own with or without the church.  As an analogy, if your parents are not good people, you can still be a good person despite your upbringing.  You can transcend their teaching and poor example.  Consequently, if they are bad, you really don’t need them. While you can ultimately grow up and leave your parents’ home, leaving the church is far easier than leaving your family (even as an adult) if you find the church to be a bad moral actor.  That’s why immoral acts and unChristian behavior, particularly if they stem from the leadership level, are intolerable to those who feel it is important that the church be “good” without caring if it is true.  The other issue is that one’s perception of “good” is tied to one’s own moral values (which usually correlate with political values).  The church need not only be “good,” but it must be better than we are independently, and good enough to bring out the best in us.

Theoretically, the value of the church from a “goodness” standpoint is one of community.  We can do more good collectively by pooling resources and specializing than we can do individually.  A charity can accomplish things that charitable individuals cannot alone.  And a community can improve our desire to do good acts through support and peer pressure.  We see ways to contribute, examples of others around us that give us new ideas of how to improve, and our community holds us accountable on some level for our actions.

Oh Say What Is Truth?

You can’t tell people to believe without seeking.

But if we are independently good (and even better than the church, at least in our own estimation), then the church being “true” is the only compelling reason to stay in the church.  But “true” is a strange concept.  When speaking of religious “truth”, it is something that cannot be proven but requires faith.  Truth generally means we believe things like that God exists, the priesthood was restored, the first vision happened or the BOM is historical.  All of these things cannot be “proven” beyond a reasonable doubt.  So belief in the church’s “truth” gives the church psychological influence on us.  If we believe the church is true, we will try hard to evaluate our decisions to align with principles the church teaches.  We suspend our skepticism and take Pascal’s Wager.

Why are people unwilling to take this wager?  One of the issues that erodes faith is that the simplistic morality-tale version of history presented by the church doesn’t match actual historical accounts.  The church’s version in correlated materials is usually a black and white affair with little nuance.  Reality is always more complex and can’t be neatly tied into narratives of villains and heroes; the morals to the story are not so clear cut.  For some, this becomes a “truth” problem.  If the church is inaccurate in its storytelling, and other versions of the same stories cast the church in a bad light (certainly by contrast), then maybe the truth claims aren’t true.  But it’s a “goodness” problem, too.  If the church hides its past, maybe it is deceptive and lacks integrity.  While I agree that whitewashing is problematic and can indicate a deficit of integrity, I tend to think both these views are reductionist thinking.

I am bothered greatly when the church deliberately hides the ugly aspects of its history or rewrites the past.  But that could mean that it is simplifying complex information to protect simplistic people from wrong conclusions.  It connotes a lack of trust on the part of some leaders in members’ ability to deal with contradictory evidence.  But that lack of trust may be an accurate reflection of how people deal with complex facts where not all the information is known and narrators are often unreliable and biased.  Reading an original historical account does not make it accurate; it is still full of the bias of its author.

One (anonymous) comment that summed it up well from a disbelieving perspective:

For me, Mormonism was powerful because we had Christ’s church restored with its power and authority, scriptures that were real witnesses of Christ’s coming to the American continent, and prophets that were mouthpieces to dictate God’s will for his people. Once that fell apart, it was hard for me to find anything from a religious standpoint that was “uniquely”valuable, even though I still see value in the community. The LGBT and women issues are just reminders that we don’t really have prophets who lead and guide us as I once believed. Value can still be found in the BOM, and in certain parts of Mormon cosmology, but not enough for me to carry the same power and meaning.

For others, literal belief is not as critical as willingness to suspend disbelief:

Historical stuff doesn’t get much traction for me. Religious belief is, by nature, weird. It involves suspension of reality. ALL religious belief requires this. And when people say that the church “lies” or even that JS “lied,” I just don’t see it that way. Lying implies knowingly, intentionally deceiving. I don’t think it’s fair to say that church leaders are or were doing that to members.

Social Issues

Reject or be rejected.

As with the above disbelieving comment, often when people state that the truth claims didn’t add up and give a logical explanation for their disaffection from the church, there are additional issues at play (in the above case, conflicting values).  Like history, it’s complicated.  So, questioning whether something is true is one element, but then the treatment one receives for questioning can create a new issue:  the church (locally in this case) not being “good” to individuals with issues.  This is entirely subjective and varies from person to person and ward to ward.  It’s also a common phenomenon in other faiths.  Doubters are often treated as enemies because the organization and its members feel that their closely held values are being rejected by the skeptic.

Why do people who have doubts stay?  Many reasons, but often because they don’t encounter poor or rough treatment at the hands of local leaders which would be the death knell otherwise, making it easier to leave than to stay.

For others, the social issues actually precede looking into truth claims.  In these cases, feeling like an “other” or an outcast or someone whose values are being stepped on at church can be the impetus to searching for truth.  When the church is either institutionally or locally unwelcoming to feminists, homosexuals, intellectuals, divorced people, singles, working moms, people from different cultures, Democrats, or others, those individuals become more likely to scrutinize the church’s truthfulness.  They already have reason to question its “goodness” in that they may not have been treated well or welcomed.  The church has rejected them and they experience dissonance with their values and what vocal members are saying at church.  In some cases, their identity, who they are, is being criticized by vocal ward members in an open and approved manner on a regular basis.  This gives some justification to their searching to see whether there is good reason to stay or not.  For those who are given reason to look, there is plenty of information out there that will justify a choice to leave it.

We can’t dismiss people’s values and finely tuned desire for social justice as wrong without giving them due consideration.  Doing so is just exercising group think.  The more homogeneous a group is, the further to an extreme its thinking will be.  The more diversity in the group, the more its thinking will be moderate.  If we intend to be a worldwide church, welcoming to all, then we need that diversity.

In my own case, I have had several disconnects with some vocal members’ (and in some cases leaders’) stated opinions.  But I also see others who disagree with those views, including in highest levels of leadership.  I don’t believe some of the things I have been taught.  But I also see that some of those things have changed, even in my lifetime, with greater understanding and time.  So I don’t see the church as always good or always true, but for me, it’s been good on the whole and true enough.  It’s been a good influence in my life and the lives of my kids.  And like Givens, I haven’t found a compelling case that disproves its truthfulness, even if proving it is likewise impossible; the value of its truthfulness is psychological.  That might not be the case if I were gay or if I had encountered much more judgmental wards than I have in which case my motive to be compelled would be greater.