John Dehlin did a five hour exit story podcast episode with Brooke and Josh Miller, a 30 something, exMormon couple from Saratoga Springs, Utah. What piqued my interest was the teaser that it featured “their attempt to seek support and answers from Spencer Fluhman of the BYU Maxwell Institute”.
If you want to hear the portion that discusses Fluhman, skip to the three hour mark. There’s a few interesting aspects of this that prompted me to write up this analysis.
Fluhman’s nuanced perspective
The Millers talked very graciously about Fluhman. He’s a great guy. He was very empathetic. He promised to answer everything he could, but was humble enough to acknowledge he might not have all the answers. They felt he was very honest.
They were very surprised at what they thought were very nuanced answers from Fluhman on some of the tough CES Letter type issues: BOM historicity, Masonic origins for LDS temple ceremonies, Joseph Smith’s use of the word “translation”, etc.
I think there might be an ethical concern about the way Fluhman’s conversation was recorded and shared, so I’m not going to be too specific on Fluhman’s answers. Suffice it to say, he was more nuanced than what you might hear from the starchy, old high priest in your ward. But only slightly more nuanced than what you might hear from FairMormon. And a lot less nuanced than me.
Score yourself on this test to give yourself an official CIT Nuanced Mormon score.
God: God is an exalted man, he creates spirit children through sex with multiple wives, and we have the potential to be God in the exact same way (20 points). God has material body and LDS teaching on godhead is accurate, but doctrine on God as an exalted man, eternal polygamy, and creation through spiritual sex is considered speculative (15). God’s characteristics are not that knowable, but he is likely similar to the LDS-Christian concept with maybe a little difference, Jesus is divine (10). God exists but we probably don’t know much about what he is; the historical Jesus is not divine, but the Cosmic Christ is real (5). God exists in a pantheistic, collective conscious kind of way (2). God doesn’t exist (0).
Scripture and science: Scriptures are always literally true; evolution science is evil (20 points). Noah’s flood wasn’t global but everything else is pretty much literal; evolution science is suspect (15). Genesis 1-9 is all symbolic, but everything else is mostly literal; science is accurate. (12). OT is mostly symbolic, NT is mostly historically accurate, the BOM is partially historical and partially an expansion by Joseph (10). OT, BOM, Book of Abraham is not historical, but New Testament is historical (5). No scripture including New Testament is expected to be historically accurate. (0)
Prophets: Always speak to God; rarely or never commit serious sin (20). Sometimes speak to God; are extremely pious relatively (15). Rarely speak to God (8). Most likely never speak directly to God (0).
LDS Exclusivity: LDS is exclusive God’s one true church (20). LDS church may not be exclusively true, but was ordained by God for a specific reason and the priesthood and ordinances are important in an eternal way (10). LDS is not exclusive in any way (0).
First Vision: 1838 account is most accurate (20). 1832 account is most accurate (10). Joseph had some kind of spiritual experience that was important to him (5). Joseph never had any kind of special spiritual experience at all (0).
What’s your score? Wouldn’t it be great if all Mormons would write their score on their forehead before they speak, just so we know what they mean. I know the Church is true, and I’m a 100. OK, I get it. I know the Church is true, and I’m a 50. Ah, I see. I know the Church is true, and I’m a 10. Hmm, interesting.
I don’t know where Fluhman would rank, but I assume that the Millers pre faith crisis would be very, very high. Fluhman would be lower. And I’m way lower than that.
There is a question about how ethical the podcast episode was, due to the fact that the Millers recorded the interview with Fluhman and didn’t receive permission to release the audio or transcript. A few people in the nuanced but active LDS category seemed to be upset about the info that was shared.
Generally, I didn’t think the Millers crossed the line of decency, but there were a few times I felt Dehlin might have. Dehlin promised not to use the recording or the transcript but then seemed to read from the transcript a couple times, using very specific language, and in a way that seemed like he was intentionally trying to embarrass Fluhman. And when the Millers were talking about how great Fluhman is but lamenting how few people get to hear his perspective, Dehlin responded “yeah, ESPECIALLY NOW” and turns to the camera and laughed, implying that Fluhman and others will be reticent to minister to those in faith crisis after this podcast episode. I don’t think this was an ethical breach for Dehlin, but I think it shows he’s not a friend to the nuanced Mormon. Come on, John, give us some love. You showed us some in that Tom Christofferson interview. It was lacking here.
The Nuanced Message
The most interesting issues and questions that come out of this episode for me are related to how the nuanced Mormon message is communicated.
I don’t know if Fluhman is truly that nuanced. But let’s use this example, because I have seen the same dynamic play out over and over.
Neo Apologist X says something nuancy in a low key setting like a fireside, or a conversation. Or they say something that might be nauncy in a more formal setting, but it’s done vaguish. Some people converse and say isn’t that interesting, Neo Apologist X is quite nuanced, I wonder if that means it’s OK if I’m nuanced too. Then others rush in, no “Neo Apologist X is not that nuanced at all!” Even when it seems very clear to all. And even when we’re all on the same nuanced “team”. There are some that seem deathly afraid to acknowledge the nuanced view publicly or attribute a nuanced perspective to any high profile Mormons.
Fluhman, Givens, Bushman, Miller, Hardy, Mason, Peck, Uchtdorf. These are the names of some high profile Mormons with perspectives that could be considered nuanced. Do we need to pretend they’re not really nuanced?
One valid comment on this:
One aspect is that in order for someone to exert influence on mainstream members, they have to be seen as “safe.” Which means they must keep up an appearance of fairly orthodox beliefs and (definitely) deference to the brethren.
So when people start going around designating influential people as new order Mormons, or unorthodox, or non-literal believers, that easily throws up a red flag for leaders and mainstream members. It affects the level of influence that person can then exert.
Yes, I think that captures it. That’s why the term Neo-Apologist is treated by some like a dirty word.
What to do about it?
Because the nuanced Mormon message gets pushed underground, most members don’t know it’s available. When I went through faith crisis ten years ago, I wanted to stay Mormon, but I wasn’t sure it was possible. All I saw was binary, black-white, all true all false, stay or leave kind of options.
I read Terryl Givens and Adam Miller and it kind of rang true, but it mostly confused the hell out of me and frustrated me.
It took me going outside the Mormon tradition to understand the nuanced Mormon perspective. Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg. John Dominic Crossan’s Parable of Christ. Pete Enns: “the Bible is what it sounds like when God lets his children tell the story”. They spelled it out clearly. And it was mind blowing and life changing for me. Now I could take those principles and apply them back to my Mormonism.
Joseph Smith could be revered as bringing us important truth without believing the 1838 First Vision Account literally or in Book of Mormon historicity. Prophets could be sustained without the belief that they literally speak for God and while acknowledging they are mortal men doing the best they can, “looking through a glass, darkly”. Scriptures and prophets messages can be perceived as not being God-breathed but also received for their positive value without judging them as fraudulent or ridiculous. I can find extreme value and meaning in living the Christ-centered Mormon life and believe the Church is true without thinking it is God’s exclusive one, true Church. I can get a temple recommend, teach lessons, and engage in my ward while viewing things metaphorically that others take literally.
But how do we get the message out?
At a point during the interview with the Millers, I actually got a little emotional. I can tell they are good people. Brooke related how she cried as she took a long drive after realizing she had to leave the Church and the heartache she felt over her child not being baptized or serving a mission. I want these people in my church. I don’t want them to leave. It hurts to see good people leaving the Church. They said if they had understood the nuanced perspective earlier before they had made a decision, they might have stayed. They kept expressing shock at some of the things Fluhman told them, when many of these things are really not even that nuanced, and in my opinion, believed by a large portion of members.
How do we reach the Millers BEFORE they read the CES Letter? How do we provide nuanced perspectives to the mainstream church to help people process faith crisis and not cause faith crisis?