Last week, I posted about Scott Gordon’s presentation at FairMormon on the CES Letter. I’ll repeat that here, but I want to focus on my thoughts prompted by a comment in that thread.

Scott got emotional and choked up while talking about the effectiveness of this document as an “anti-Mormon” proselyting tool and the gravity of the CES Letter’s impact on the LDS world. Many families have been broken up and many people have had their lives disrupted. I share that emotion. I love this church, and I don’t like to see the number of people leaving it.

Scott spends part of the presentation describing generally the CES Letter and then spends a large amount of time going point by point for the first chapter of the CES Letter, showing that it is poor researched, sloppy, full of lies and half truths. By doing so, I think Scott completely misses why the CES Letter is so compelling and so effective in deconstructing a traditional LDS belief set.

Yes, the CES Letter is a little sloppy. Yes, it includes a few inaccuracies and many “half-truths”. Yes, it includes all the bad and none of the good regarding evidences that support LDS truth claims. All of that is true. But it’s at least 70% accurate. And that 70% is a whopper for most LDS.

Next to me, of course (https://www.churchistrue.com/blog/ces-letter/), Patrick Mason has given the best insight into how to process the CES Letter while retaining an LDS testimony. He said the CES Letter does a very good job attacking what he calls an unsustainable view of Mormonism. He then talks about how we have overfilled our “truth cart” and need to empty some of it. He believes there is a sustainable version of Mormonism that will come out on top. The CES Letter is effective in terms of identifying what needs to be tossed and what can stay.

I don’t think Scott Gordon’s defense of the CES Letter is effective, because I didn’t hear him acknowledge that point or encourage those struggling with doubt to shift their paradigm or adopt a more humble view of our doctrine and truth claims. His approach seems to be to just simply write it all off and defend the traditional narrative, with the overflowing truth cart, stuffing it back in as it keeps falling out.

Book of Abraham problems. Polygamy problems. Priesthood ban. Book of Mormon translation issues. Conflict in First Vision accounts. Details lacking in the priesthood restoration narrative. Old Testament Documentary Hypothesis. New Testament textual criticism. Evolution of doctrine in the restoration (and anciently).

None of these are simple problems. Every single one is a land mine ready to explode a traditional/literal/fundamentalistic testimony. The CES Letter is extremely effective at pointing this out. The process goes like this:

  1. Many LDS have a simple, white-washed, historically indefensible view on the issue. Usually the view includes a perspective that God is involved in a way that’s 100% certain, in a fundamentalistic, inerrant manner.
  2. The CES Letter blows away this view. (and imo, rightly so)
  3. The faith struggler then has three options.
    a. Combat the new information to settle back into the initial perspective, or a slightly nuanced version that’s essentially the same. But basically retaining the notion that God is involved in a way that’s nearly 100% certain and inerrant.
    b. Accept the new information and come to believe the Church is not “true” and either leave or try to stay in a state that’s very uncomfortable.
    c. Accept the new information and reprocess the view of the Church into a version that’s less certain and more humanistic and built on true faith. This new view may not retain beliefs such that LDS is the one and only exclusively true church. But it does retain beliefs that God is in this Church in some way, and that it’s worthy of us devoting ourselves to.

I have a hunch that Scott Gordon and most of FairMormon would agree with me on this. But it’s very scary to say directly, considering that this more humanistic more epistemologically humble perspective is not the one taught over the pulpit at General Conference or on Sundays in our wards. It’s much easier to snipe around the borders of the CES Letter without really taking it on.

OK, and now the comment that I’ve been thinking a lot about.

Mormonism is a young, quite immature religion. It lacks confidence in itself, which manifests as overconfidence. The Church (by which I primarily mean Brigham’s church, as that’s what I’m most familiar with) demands all or nothing because it’s unsure whether people can accept its true, messy nature. The Church doesn’t seem to realize that human nature necessarily is messy, especially when it comes to faith. As an ex member, far be it from me to tell the Church what to do. But, if they were interested, I’d say that they need to stop trying to short-circuit faith journeys. Tell people that it’s okay to leave just as much as it’s okay to stay. Let people explore. If the Church is what it claims to be, then people will be drawn back into it. It should be confident enough in itself to allow those journeys to happen. Also, if it’s not what it claims to be, but it’s still good, then people will stay or return. Maybe it’s okay if the Church isn’t True, as long as the Church is good. But to get there the Church will need to grow up.

This made me think. I imagine the closer we go back to any one religion’s origins, the more it was promoted or marketed in terms of being the “one, true” religion. As religions mature, two things happen. 1) doubt in certain things becomes normalized within the faith community that causes some of the origination claims or “dominant narrative” to be less critical to the religion 2. there’s a shift within the religion of how it’s promoted and the value proposition for its members from “absolute truth” based reasons to “this is why our doctrines and practices are good/important/vital”.

I think we see this to some degree in world religions: Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Hinduism. I think these religions have a healthy mix of those who engage because of truth claims and those who engage because it’s good.

Mormonism is so young and its truth claims are so bold, that we are very, very new in this process. But we have beautiful doctrines.

  • a well thought out view of Christianity with a good mix of grace and works
  • the Book of Mormon: a beautiful piece of scripture that fits very well with the Bible
  • Heavenly Mother
  • an organizational structure based on revelation that facilitates progress
  • a belief that we are literal children of God that can be like him and her
  • restoration of what made the Old Testament and the origination of the Jewish religion great: temple, covenants, and desire to establish Zion
  • we take our religion seriously
  • a reputation for being do-gooders

Can our religion not stand as being great outside the foundational claims that seem hard to believe in a modern world? Can we incorporate those whose faith transitions from LDS as exclusively God’s one and only true church, to a church that’s not quite that but pretty awesome and the best I can find?

The information age is exploding this doubt into our community and forcing the process to happen at an extremely pace. It feels threatening and impossible. I used to think we had 20-50 years to allow this to unfold. But if we don’t want to lose the majority of an entire generation, I think we need to figure out how to do it a lot faster.