Letter to a CES Student

It’s important to keep our tough questions about Mormonism in perspective. And, especially, we need to keep the genuinely urgent questions front and center.

The big problems are straightforward. We’re dying here. You and I. We’re getting sick, we’re getting old, and we’re dying. Our lives are small and our time is short. Our days are filled with suffering of all kinds: distress, worry, boredom, frustration, and loss. Time will have its way with us. And both we – and everyone we love, and everything we love – will pass away. We are losing to time and we will, finally, lose everything.

Religion is meant to address these problems. And, in the end, the fruit it bears in addressing sin and suffering and death are its measure.

It’s easy, though, to get sidetracked by other things. In fact, it’s tempting to get sidetracked by other things.

What’s critical is the ability to (1) relieve suffering wherever possible, and (2) especially to change, in a fundamental way, our relationship to the suffering we can’t relieve.

Let me tell a story about the Buddha.

A young man comes to see the Buddha. And this young man has taken up “the training life,” he’s attempting to follow the Buddha’s instructions about how to wake up and stop sleep-walking through his own life.

He begins on the path and starts doing the hard work, but then he gets distracted when he realizes that, though the Buddha has given him some clear instructions about what to do as he practices, the Buddha hasn’t given him any answers to even the most basic religious questions: Is this the only world? Is there a soul separable from the body? Is there life after death? Etc. So he abandons his training and resolves to track down the Buddha and demand answers.

When he finally finds the Buddha and rattles off his questions, the Buddha shakes his head. Then he roars. Then he tells the following story.

You, my friend, the Buddha says, are a like a man who has been shot with an arrow, thickly smeared with poison. Wounded and dying, that man’s friends gather round to remove the arrow and help counteract the poison. But the man refuses to pull the arrow out until he’s first had some questions answered.

Who shot him? What tribe is the shooter from? Is he tall or short? Fat or skinny? Warrior or peasant? What color is his hair? What kind of bow did he use? Made of what kind of wood? Strung with what kind of material? What kind of arrow was used? With what kind of arrowhead? What kind of string fastened the arrowhead to the shaft of the arrow? And on and on. The questions pile up.

The man may have a right to ask all these questions but, the Buddha says, that doesn’t really matter here because before he’ll get any of those answers, he’ll be dead. The poison will kill him.

You are like this man, the Buddha tells his student. You are suffering and dying. And you can demand answers to all these speculative questions if you like — but if you do, you’ll die before you ever get any answers.

Regardless of how your questions get answered, the Buddha tells him, still there is suffering, still there is sickness, still there is aging, still there is worry and distress and fear, still there is death. It is the work of addressing all this in this very world that I teach.

(Find a full, non-summarized version of this story in Glenn Wallis’ Basic Teachings of the Buddha, pp. 5-8)

Start with the critical things. Pull out the arrows of suffering. Counteract the poison.

Doubts and Sacrifice

We need to be clear about the background against which our discussions of religion take place. None of us are going to make it out of this world alive. And everyone of us will have to part with everything and everyone we care about most. Everyone of us will have to sacrifice everything.

As the Lectures on Faith put it: a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things has not the power to save.

But there’s a catch here: even if your religion doesn’t require you to sacrifice everything, life will.

The basic religious question with respect to all these losses is not if you will be asked to sacrifice everything, but how you will do it. With what attitude, with what posture? With an open heart and an open hand or with a fearful mind and a closed fist?

Sacrificing everything happens more dramatically and traumatically for some, and more quietly and subtly for others. But no one gets a free pass. We will all have to face this. We’ll all have this day of reckoning when God shows up to require that we return to him what he’d previously given.

And of all the things that God will require at our hands, of all the things he’ll require us to return, our ideas about things are no exception. In particular, our ideas about God himself and about religion don’t get a free pass. He will, sooner or later, require the sacrifice of all things — your ideas included. Can you trust the truth enough to let your ideas about the truth go?

Abraham is the (terrifying) model here. God asked Abraham to sacrifice everything. He asked him to step up and give back what mattered most to him. “Go up to Moriah,” God said, “and sacrifice Isaac, your beloved son, your only son.” And Abraham went. And when he had bound Isaac and laid him on the altar, he wasn’t just sacrificing his son, he was sacrificing everything God had promised him. Abraham was sacrificing every idea he’d ever had about God and every idea he’d ever had about religion.

Abraham was sacrificing the fulfillment of every promise God himself had ever made him and he was sacrificing it at God’s own request.

The story is itself troubling and trying. But, for all its problems and weaknesses, it has resonated with Jews and Christians and Muslims for thousands of years because it captures something fundamental about what living a religious life looks like: living a religious life will require you to willingly lose everything God has given to you and, in a really important way, this includes the religious life itself.

In some ways, this is the question at stake in an experience of doubt. Take your experience of doubt — take your experience of living with the crumbling of your ideas about your God and your religion — and then ask: can you carry out the work of living with these doubts and losses as a religious gesture?

Can you carry out the work of living with these doubts as a willing sacrifice? Can you sacrifice what you thought was your religion as an act fidelity to that religion? Can you, like Abraham, sacrifice at God’s request God’s own promises to you?

And, then, having given it all back, having returned all your ideas about God and religion to God, can you still keep coming?

Can you stay?

If your religion falls apart in your hands, don’t without further ado assume that this is because your religion doesn’t work.

Rather, start by inquiring into whether that disintegration may not itself be the clearest manifestation yet of the fact that your religion is working.

Mormonism Isn’t About Mormonism

Let me also suggest that some ways of approaching our doubts and questions will be more fruitful than others. For example, I think that it’s generally a mistake to think that Mormonism is about Mormonism.

But when investigating Mormonism, when thinking about the nature of the church and our relationship to it, it’s easy to fall into the assumption that the thing at stake in Mormonism is Mormonism itself. We do this all the time.

But I don’t think this is true.

Mormonism is not about Mormonism.

Consider an analogy. Say that I’m concerned about my own life, about whether this life is good, whether I’m being true to the things that matter to me, and whether I’m on track to finding real happiness.

In this case, I’ll be tempted to fall into the assumption that if I’m worried about my own well being and happiness, I should put more and more time and effort into making sure that my own happiness is secure.

The temptation here is to think that my life is about me.

But I think this is a fundamental mistake: my life is not about me. And the more I focus my life on my own happiness, the worse off I’ll be, the farther from happiness I’ll be, and the more fraudulent I’ll feel (and be).

This move is a bit counterintuitive, but a willingness to swim upstream against the flow of this natural assumption – the assumption that my happiness is best secured by aiming directly at my own happiness, the assumption that my own life is, of course, about me – is crucial. Our willingness to swim against the flow of this assumption is the lifeblood of faith. It’s what keeps the heart of a religious life beating.

As Jesus puts it, I can only save my life by losing it. If I try to save my own life, then that life will inevitably be lost.

The irony is that happiness, like meaning, is one of those peculiar things that you can only have as a by-product of something else. It can only be achieved as a side-effect of a life aimed at paying attention to and caring for the world that’s right in front of you.

Happiness and meaning only accrue as a (welcome) by-product when my life and time and attention are aimed at something other than itself. But the more I obsess over happiness and meaning, the farther I get from them.

I think that the same thing is true of Mormonism. If you think that Mormonism is about Mormonism, the same thing happens as when you think that your own life is about you.

Mormonism comes into focus as living and true only when we stop looking directly at it and, instead, aim our attention at what Mormonism is itself aiming at. If you aim right at Mormonism itself, you’ll miss seeing the thing that is crucial with respect to deciding whether it deserves your enduring fidelity.

This is a kind of paradox but, again, it is exactly the paradox that is at the heart of Christianity itself.

In fact, it’s the kind of paradox that, from the outside, can sound like a kind of dodge, like an easy way of avoiding the really tough issues that ought to be addressed and assessed and resolved.

More, even from the other side of the aisle, refusing to believe that Mormonism is about Mormonism can, in fact, also look like you’re being unfaithful to Mormonism itself.

Both are real possibilities. But I don’t think these worries hold.

More, I’m convinced that these kinds of questions about Mormonism can’t be answered in the abstract. The truthfulness of this claim — that Mormonism is not about Mormonism — has to be tested in the flesh, in the first person, by every person.

You must see what happens to your own heart and your own mind, to your own perception of Mormonism, when you give your full attention not to Mormonism but, by way of Mormonism, to the thing that Mormonism itself aims at.

It’s only by connecting with what Mormonism itself hopes to connect with that you can justify your enduring fidelity to it. Only by forgetting yourself and forgetting Mormonism in the hard work of caring, by way of Mormonism, for what Mormonism cares about can Mormonism itself come into focus.

Every attempt to directly address Mormonism itself will show you only, to one degree or another, a hypocrite, an empty suit, an imposter. This won’t be hard to recognize. Because you’re already deeply familiar with how this same feeling of being a hypocrite, an empty suit, and an imposter arises whenever you attempt to live your own life as if that life were about you.

Living your life as if it were about you is an intolerable burden. Life cannot bear the weight. You will smother the life right out of your own life if you try.

And the same thing follows with Mormonism. Mormonism cannot bear the weight of itself. If you ask Mormonism to be about Mormonism, the weight of that inward turning and the redoubling of that self-regard will stifle it. Mormonism will collapse under its own weight and you’ll have lost the very thing you had hoped to find.

You can only save Mormonism by losing it. You can only save Mormonism by connecting deeply with what Mormonism is itself aiming at. This is the only way to be faithful to what Mormonism itself is trying to do.

Not Likely

Let’s ask the question, then: what is Mormonism aiming at? Most straightforwardly, the answer is summarized in that single most important Christian word: grace.

Mormonism is aimed at grace. If you also aim at grace (rather than at Mormonism), then two things can happen: (1) you will be saved and (2) you will find Mormonism to boot.

What, then, does it mean to aim your life at grace?

Let’s admit up front, here, that our Mormon stories involve a whole host things that can only be described as pretty unlikely. Very unlikely. Extremely unlikely.

Angels and miracles and golden books and lost civilizations and life after death and worlds of spirit, etc. These things run afoul of common sense. They run against the grain of the shared world that is publically accessible to everyone. I don’t think there’s any getting around this. These beliefs look crazy from the outside.

And, for my part, I honestly don’t know much about any of these kinds of things. I’ve been going to church for three plus hours every Sunday for almost forty years and I’ve never seen or heard or felt anything supernatural.

I don’t think this is unusual.

I’m not denying that these supernatural things are real or that people don’t have the kind of direct contact with supernatural things that I never have. I’m just saying that they’ve never happened to me and that, at best, I can only speak about them in the third person on the basis of what others say.

But I don’t think that this is a disaster. And I don’t think it means that Mormonism doesn’t work. In fact, Mormonism seems to be working pretty well in transforming me in all kinds of ways that I find to be difficult and uncomfortable and extremely valuable.

But this transformation has also been profoundly ordinary and it has revolved around God trying to get me to stop speculating about other worlds and far off places and supernatural events and to, instead, pay attention to what’s happening right now, in this world, right in front of my own eyes.

This transformation has revolved around God trying to get me to pay attention to and care for the kinds of things that are so near and obvious that I’m prone to overlook them — the kinds of things that manifest God’s grace concretely at work in the world.

As best as I can tell, though, this is exactly what God wants. If I’m ever going to learn to see him, it will be by learning to see his hand at work in the air I breath and grass I mow. It will be by learning to see his eyes shining out from my child’s face. It will be by reading a book and hearing it read in his voice.

To this end, I’d recommend the following. Don’t be too distracted by questions that you can’t answer. Don’t get distracted by questions that you lack evidence to decide. Only God prove that God exists and he’s chosen not to do that. And only God can prove that the Book of Mormon is verifiably historical — and, again, he’s clearly chosen not to do that.

I assume God has his reasons.

But I don’t believe the reason he’s chosen to set aside these things is because he wants to see if we’re willing to believe things without good evidence. I don’t believe that faith and credulity are the same thing. I don’t believe that mortality is meant to test our credulity. And I don’t think the God is interested in rewarding people for being credulous. Credulity is not, in and of itself, a virtue.

If the answer to certain kinds of questions are above your pay-grade, then leave them there. These are not your burdens. They are not your responsibilities.

In fact, I suspect that God has left this kind of evidence off the table precisely in order to keep us from getting distracted by it.

Take the Book of Mormon. It seems clear to me that God wants our experience of the world to be reshaped by our reading of the Book of Mormon. And, more, it seems clear to me that he doesn’t want us pinning the success of that project on our success in trying to prove something that we can’t prove and that he has explicitly chosen not to.

Let me put it this way: it is not your responsibility to prove things that only God can prove.

Your business is to pay attention, to care for the world pressing in on you, and pull out that arrow thickly smeared with poison before you and those you love die from the wound. You business is to sacrifice all of it. Your business is consecration. And you have to consecrate everything, not just part.  Even your doubts and questions need to be consecrated. Even Mormonism itself must be consecrated and returned. This work is more than enough.

And it is the accomplishment of just this work that Mormonism is itself aiming at. If you want to know the truth about Mormonism, don’t aim at Mormonism. Aim at accomplishing the work that Mormonism is itself aimed at.

106 comments for “Letter to a CES Student

  1. October 28, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    It is far better to have more hope than to have less suffering. As the Buddha was aware, desire, and the best kind of desire, the kind called hope, and suffering are inextricably linked. Some say that he chose to focus on eliminating desire to eliminate suffering. If so, he chose poorly.

    But the hope for more and better proof is probably pretty paltry as hopes go.

  2. October 28, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    I hate to be contrarian because this is a well-written and thought-provoking piece, but I can’t help but be deeply unsatisfied with it. Maybe because it is so contrary to my own lived experience. I have prayed for a couple decades to know what church to join (I am a cradle Mormon) and I believe that God led me to the knowledge that the LDS church is not true and that there IS a true church out there that I am joining, based on what I feel is a very thorough process of studying history, theology, philosophy, ancient spirituality, and living out those principles in my life.

    If I had taken the advice of this column I would have just “shelved” all those things and focused on what seems like the urgent poison arrow (home teaching, or something?) when truly I believe that God was saying to me, “Listen, I DID give you a brain, and it IS capable of knowing things and weighing evidence, and it’s all in front of you. Go get it.” And I truly believe I have.

    And now I can work on myself, and help people around me, and repent, and turn toward Christ, and experience the presence of God every single day. Except now I’m not completely weighed down by trying to figure out what Joseph Smith was hiding in his wooden box.

    Sorry if I’m not your target audience or if this comment isn’t exactly what people want on this blog. But from my point of view it just seems so fatalistic and depressing IF you assume that the whole “there’s no proof of any religious things” thing is just a post-Enlightenment myth.

  3. Mike M.
    October 28, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    “The irony is that happiness, like meaning, is one of those peculiar things that you can only have as a by-product of something else. It can only be achieved as a side-effect of a life aimed at paying attention to and caring for the world that’s right in front of you. Happiness and meaning only accrue as a (welcome) by-product when my life and time and attention are aimed at something other than itself. But the more I obsess over happiness and meaning, the farther I get from them.”

    While I’m obviously in no position to question your experience on this topic, I don’t think this is a universally true principle. I think one can focus on happiness as the ultimate objective in life and still achieve it.

    Focusing on happiness does not mean putting less emphasis on other people either, as one can recognize that man is a social creature and that one’s happiness depends on one’s interactions with others.

  4. Eric W. Palfreyman
    October 28, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    Fascinating article and interesting thoughts. The story of the Buddha and the student is a fascinating one, but wonder if it is really only applicable in narrow situations. What if the arrow is removed, the poison does not have its desired result and all is well. But we never learn where the arrow is coming from, why it came in the first place, what the nature of the poison is, etc. At some point, the question of Truth, with a capital “T” seems to be important. Joseph Smith, for example, sought Truth. He was not satisfied to just keep “doing things” and hope truth would come. He sought it directly and was rewarded. We are to seek truth. To seek God. To seek a unity of spirit. I think much of that may be a by-product of a kind of willing pragmatism. But I think, at some point, we need to seek truth–at least, as much as we can get. Very, very good article. I wish I could write as well as you.

  5. October 28, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    Wonderful post and wise perspective. I would only say that I don’t think Mormonism as a cultural movement has ever been aimed at Grace. In my experience Mormonism has been aimed at Celestial reward and all of the mile posts along the way. So while the truth claims of a faith may not matter in the actual sense, they do matter in the literal sense, as in how we interpret them. And in my reading of the BOM I kept encountering stories not of grace but of law. It was not until I let go of Mormonism as a spiritual practice that Grace found me. The spiritual practices of Mormonism seem perfectly capable of transformation if we drop the the expectation that we must qualify for Grace through our spiritual practice. Spiritual Practice is not about qualifying for God’s love, but dwelling in it. Thanks Adam!

  6. IsaacH
    October 28, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    Syphon, which church are you joining? I am genuinely curious.

  7. IsaacH
    October 28, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    Sorry, autocorrect. I meant Syphax.

  8. October 28, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    The Eastern Orthodox Church, but I don’t really feel like making that the focus of this comments section. I feel like I’ve hijacked enough. But my point, ultimately, is that for me, it really WAS about studying as much as possible, discovering the true church, and joining it. This post assumes that this isn’t possible – there’s this fatalistic undertone that you might as well struggle in Mormonism, and there’s no point in looking anywhere else because it’s impossible to prove anything and it’s not as important as just sticking it out and helping people right here. Well, that might be true, but it might also be the case that you SHOULD seek out truth, take in as much as possible, ask the Lord for guidance from the Spirit, and then you can actually join the real true church where you don’t have to struggle with anything except your own sinful nature. Why assume the latter is not important or not possible? I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong, but why close that door?

  9. October 28, 2014 at 10:50 pm

    I always appreciate Adam’s posts (although sometimes I don’t always understand them…but I think I’m getting better over time.) However, one thing that strikes me from many posts (and this one definitely fits the bill) is that while I like it, and while I wish the church were such a place…it just seems like it’s not. Adam has no institutional legitimacy. Far from freeing him up to do a creative work (ala “rube goldberg machine” theology), what it actually means is that his recommendations do not ring as institutionally valid.

    Part of living Mormonism is being willing and able to publicly say that you believe or even know that the church is true (whether in context of mission, bearing testimony, etc.,). So, Adam, as much as you say things against this (e.g., “Mormonism isn’t about Mormonism.”), there’s going to be a constant pushback…Questions that someone can’t answer or that they don’t have evidence to decide are not a distraction, because they are critical to how Mormonism is functionally lived.

  10. Steve Smith
    October 28, 2014 at 11:01 pm

    “Angels and miracles and golden books and lost civilizations and life after death and worlds of spirit, etc. These things run afoul of common sense.”

    Yet if an actual angel named Moroni didn’t literally appear to Joseph Smith and reveal the record of ancient Hebrews who actually lived on the American continent between 600BCE and 400CE engraved on golden plates and the afterlife is as it is literally described in Mormon doctrine, then some huge pillars of Mormonism collapse and much of Mormonism is nothing but a myth. The vast majority of active Mormons, I would say, are motivated to do what they do because they believe that many of Joseph Smith’s central claims are literally true.

    “Mormonism is aimed at grace”

    Sure that’s part of it. But the doctrine of grace relies on the existence of literal God and a literal predicament caused by human imperfection that can only be remedied by Jesus’ literal sacrifice of his flesh.

  11. inishmuse
    October 28, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    Syphax, I agree with you. I went through the same type of journey you did and eventually stumbled onto an another spiritual/religious path where everything seemed to fit and feel right for me. The struggle was really gone — questions and dialog were welcomed, ambiguity was allowed. perhaps you can have a spiritual transformation as powerful as he alludes to in the LDS church – but, for me, the ‘I know this church is true’ is a big barrier. When accepting that truth I have to accept so many things about the history of the church, etc. that I am pretty sure were shams. The core values of the church may still be there, but what are they based on? I just can’t put those aside.

  12. Steve Smith
    October 28, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    In defense of Jeremy Runnells’ letter, I will say this. Imagine that all of sudden your community experienced a massive wave of conversion to a traditional sect of Hinduism that took the doctrine of reincarnation very literally. They also adopted the belief that cows were sacred beings who were valiant souls in past lives and that it was the ultimate sin to kill them. What if groups of them started asking you if you believed in reincarnation and got very offended if you said no. What if they took deep offense to you eating beef and said that was a huge affront to the true religion and that you were guilty of killing a being that was of higher value than a human. What would you say? Might you express doubt about reincarnation? Might you want to ask them where their evidence was for reincarnation and the cow’s sanctity? If the belief in reincarnation and in the sanctity of the cow started to directly affect your life, might you openly challenge the validity of such beliefs altogether?

    Now think of yourself now. Do you believe in reincarnation? If you are LDS person who grew up in the US or Western Europe, you probably haven’t thought much about it. You probably haven’t thought much about the consumption of beef either. This is how most people feel about Mormonism. They don’t spend much time thinking about Mormonism’s central claims, because they are not in an environment where these are pushed. But there are a select few whose lives are greatly affected by Mormonism’s claims. They are put in positions in which these claims are pushed continually upon them.

  13. Matt Evans
    October 28, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    Very nice, Adam.

  14. October 29, 2014 at 6:50 am

    The reasoning here is shockingly bad. And its twisted logic could be applied to any religious tradition including the JWs or Scientology for that matter. It seems like he begins with the premise “stay here” and then emits a cloud of equivocations and strained metaphors to help people feel better about that option.

  15. Mike
    October 29, 2014 at 8:12 am

    I liked this post. In other words, John 7:17. Knowledge of the truth of the doctrine comes best through doing God’s will. If you live and do what the church teaches, you can decide whether it is good for you (it has been for me). As you gain a conviction of the truths that serving, loving, forgiving an repenting in the ways that the church teaches are true principles, that conviction endows with truth the idea that the plates were golden. For Naaman, it was far more important to bathe in the river Jordan than it was to figure out why on Earth it was Jordan versus some other river, and why seven times.

  16. Dave K
    October 29, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Thank you Adam. There is a lot of good material here. I found the Buddha story enlightening. Your explanation of life’s reality that we all lose everything, but can chose how we lose it, is quite profound. Good stuff to chew on.

    However, as with other commenters, I struggle to understand how these principles apply to keeping members in the church fold (which I assume from the title is the purpose of your post). I wish the Mormon gospel was about grace, but in my lived experience it is mostly about is growth for growth’s sake. And if your logic were applied evenly to non-members, it would essentially destroy the missionary program as Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, and Atheists would be required to give up – “consecrate” – their doubts in those faiths in lieu of considering the truth claims of Mormonism.

    Most problematic, though, is the notion that members should yield to a fallible church their ability to reason. I doubt you really believe this, else why use reason (your arguments) to encourage the result?Just as one cannot teach the gospel to another who is starving, it is impossible to convince someone by reason if your argument starts off by rejecting their right to think for themselves.

  17. KLC
    October 29, 2014 at 9:07 am

    I liked this. Many of the responses to it are addressing institutional concerns but I think you are offering thoughts on how to find the strength to get up and face another day after a sleepless night of pondering. Thanks for taking the time to write it. It was worth reading.

  18. Suleyman
    October 29, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Steve Smith,

    That explanation of the Hindu treatment and sanctity of cows is largely an urban legend.

  19. JL
    October 29, 2014 at 9:29 am

    I see some valuable insights here, but my main concern, like others, is the apparent turning from other-worldly concerns. My response is best expressed by CS Lewis:

    “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

  20. Dustin
    October 29, 2014 at 9:35 am

    I think I understand where you are going with this article, Adam, and I like it. It is an approach I have been trying to take with my own life for months. I love the fruit of Mormonism even though I do not know everything about its origins (angels, golden books, etc). The biggest issue I have with your approach is that the tribal leaders and tribal culture pressure you (nah, require you-think here about temple recommend interview questions #3 and #4) to not only live the religion but also have a testimony of the tribe (the shooter, what the bow was made out of, type of arrow, etc). It is very difficult to maintain membership in the tribe if you cannot (or do not) regularly rise and bear testimony that these things (i.e. Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon, current Prophet, priesthood keys, etc) are true.

  21. Kristine
    October 29, 2014 at 9:39 am

    Adam, this is pretty. And to the extent that our religious problems are problems with thinking, it works pretty well. But what if you are gay, or a woman, or disabled, or a person of color, and instead of trying to either pull out the arrow or answer your questions, your co-religionists poke you with poisoned pins every time you show up and tell you it’s your fault if it hurts or you’re “offended”? And if your intellectual friends tell you that if you would just “change your relationship with suffering” you wouldn’t mind so much?

  22. Syphax
    October 29, 2014 at 9:42 am

    #11 – That’s how it has been for me, too. I have no doubt that some people can find those experiences in Mormonism, but I found them in much greater measure somewhere else. And of course I still struggle with doubts and weakened morale and resolve, etc. just like elsewhere. The only difference is, my religion is now the solution to those things rather than a contributor to the problem. I think Adam is right that the struggle with doubt/absurdity/nothingness is a struggle worth having – in fact I think it’s the Prime Struggle of our existence. But that struggle became constructive rather than destructive when I felt like I was in the right religion. Again, why close the door on such a big and important part of ourselves – the part of ourselves that gathers evidence, searches for big-T truth, and comes up with solutions based on our best reasoning – a part of ourselves that God certainly gave us? Why close the door on the idea that there IS a “true church” out there? Why close the door on the idea that our religion itself might be the problem (rather than just beating ourselves up for “not doing it correctly”)?

    I just don’t understand living a type of faith that requires such a great deal of door-closing. What if we’re closing a door on God Himself?

  23. Josh Smith
    October 29, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Dustin (#20): My own experience is that the Mormon “tribe” can be accepting of all manner of deviants. Obviously, I can only speak to my own experience. However, I’m personally satisfied that a closet agnostic with a descent sense of humor (and a willingness to part with 10% of his livelihood) can live a happy life as a Mormon.

    Adam, thank you for the thoughtful post. It gave me much to think about. Your thoughts on sacrificing doubt made me bristle. Life is just too short to not trust one’s own judgment. :-)

  24. October 29, 2014 at 10:01 am

    Thank you Adam for explaining where the 10% of my income went. Money=Grace. Relieved to finally get that one answered.

  25. Kevin Rex
    October 29, 2014 at 11:28 am

    I wish that I could be included in the Mormon “tribe” as you describe, Josh Smith. When I came out as gay a year ago as a 49 year old married grandpa, very devout and hiding completely my inner self, I hoped for that for a while, but when I allowed myself to finally feel feelings of all kind that I’d hidden, I realized I was in constant pain when attending Mormon services and studying Mormon and Christian scriptures. I resigned from the church, but kept my 29 year marriage and live in what is likely one of the most extreme paradoxes of all time. As Kristine mentioned above, being gay just doesn’t fit in the Church; I tried for 40 years, earnestly, sincerely tried, and Mormonism just didn’t fit me well. It seems to fit my wife well, as she is a personality that loves checklists and authority-driven motivations, and goals, and she has benefitted from Mormonism’s somewhat pharisaical ways, the ultimate reward in Heaven being her goal. She and I have had to adapt a lot, and I think more and more couples and families are having to deal with these mixed-faith situations, and so this OP seems very removed from the lived world of many in the cultural Mormon world.

  26. Cates
    October 29, 2014 at 11:57 am

    ” It seems to fit my wife well, as she is a personality that loves checklists and authority-driven motivations, and goals, and she has benefitted from Mormonism’s somewhat pharisaical ways, the ultimate reward in Heaven being her goal.”

    With a husband like that, who needs an ex?

  27. Cami
    October 29, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Why would a Wookiee, an 8-foot-tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor, with a bunch of 2-foot-tall Ewoks? But more importantly, you have to ask yourself: What does this have to do with the questions raised by Jeremy Runnells? Nothing. Mormonism is not about Mormonism! Ladies and Gentleman, it does not make sense. If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit! The defense rests.

  28. John English
    October 29, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    I really appreciate this letter. That is all.

  29. Josh Smith
    October 29, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Kevin Rex (25):

    Just a couple thoughts …

    As I said, I could only speak to my own experience. My experience is that–thus far–I’ve been able to work out compromises and manage to live a happy, pretty-much useful life as a Mormon. However, it certainly doesn’t take much imagination for me to see where someone would not feel part of the “tribe.” So, I guess what I’m saying is that my comment is not intended to invalidate or rationalize another’s experience.

    My next thought is that I’m part of the “tribe” (even if the “tribe” would rather leave me for dead in the woods). And, as part of the “tribe,” I hereby invite all other marginalized tribe members, or potential tribe members, to join me in a certain underground movement called the “Latte Day Saints.”* As the name suggests, “Latte Day Saints” sometimes enjoy a certain dark brown caffeinated beverage that rhymes with “smoffee.” Seriously though, if you’re a marginalized Mormon, I’ll be a marginalized Mormon with you. FWIW.

    My last thought, I’m not going to hold it against anyone who decides to find another tribe–unless that tribe involves murder … or exhibitionism.

    *This name was not invented by me, though I’m running with it.

  30. Tim
    October 29, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    This is “It’s a feature not a bug” on steroids with a splash of Mormonism. It can only appeal to people with a radical acceptance of Mormon presuppositionalism.

    It’s fine to ask “will pulling the arrow out this way kill me?” and “is there a better way to pull the arrow out?”

  31. Athie
    October 29, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    I take it that there is a central causal claim in this essay and in Miller’s broader work: that practicing Mormonism causes people to be morally better than they would otherwise be. Is this an obviously better-evidenced or more reasonable claim in comparison to traditional orthodox Mormon truth claims? It doesn’t seem at all obvious to me that it is. The case would have to be made that the good Mormons do in the world outweighs the bad they do by being Mormon (such as majority opposition to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, majority opposition to feminism from the 1970s to the present, majority opposition to equal rights and marriage for LGBTQ people for the last several decades, majority opposition to environmentalism, and so forth). Let’s do the math on this and see whether the balance is at least positive as a first step. A second step would be to somehow inquire whether Mormons would in fact on average be morally superior if they converted instead to, for example, Quaker practice.

    On the other hand, if we can agree that the idea that Mormonism produces moral good is a faith claim without and to a certain extent in tension with the evidence, then the position Miller outlines is not at all more reasonable than a literalist Mormon position.

  32. Erick Kuhni
    October 29, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    I don’t think it is slightly reasonable to suggest that Mormonism is 1) about coping with death; 2) about helping people use their time best to help others.

    Now, when I refer to Mormonism, I am referring to the justifications for belonging to an “institution”. If Mormonism is becoming a non-loyalty based, and non-top-down, philosophy…then I guess I could be wrong about the above comment, but let’s get real…it’s not. It is very much a “tribe”, and a corporation that requires loyalty and behaviors from the members that hase nothing, nadda, zilch, (any other made up term for “nothing”) to do with offering hope in fear of death, or in motivating people to being kinder and better here and now.

  33. Carole
    October 29, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    The church *is* about Mormonism. It requires certain behaviors, beliefs and actions in order to be exalted with your family. Until the LDS Church is about charity for the sole purpose of relieving suffering; truly about family love and acceptance and not about it’s own (current) definition of a family; embraces equality: allows men and women to fully contribute to the organization; and stops interviewing people about their “worthiness” to participate in the organization, it appears to be all about itself. Mormonism is all about Mormonism.

  34. Aaron
    October 29, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    How is this not victim blaming? How is this not special pleading? How is this not a non-sequitur? How is this not a straw man?

    The CES letter situation is like this story of Buddha I just made up: Buddha was once being beaten by a group of people, then he realized he was to blame for the beating and the pain actually felt good because it was cleansing his wrongdoing.

    Man, they should just give me a philosophy degree, this is easy…

  35. Moses
    October 29, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    What if Mormonism IS the poison arrow? For women, Mormonism requires a perpetual second-class status. For Native Americans, the Book of Mormon obscures the true history of indigenous peoples behind a mythology of “filthy and loathesome” Lamanites. For LGBT people, Mormonism engenders self-loathing with the requirement of celibacy or mixed-orientation marriages. For part-member families, Mormonism demands the exclusion of families from temple sealing ceremonies and eternal separation from those loved ones who refuse to convert. For African Americans, Mormonism requires the belief in a God who punished them for the sins of their “ancestor Cain.” The list goes on and on. Mormonism is the poison arrow. Once we remove that arrow, the healing can begin.

  36. Erick Kuhni
    October 29, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    Look, if people want hope and a reason to be better…here it is. Along time ago our Mom and Dad, Gods, dropped us off at an earth day-care. Some of us die, but that just means their outside enjoying a little recess while the rest of us are in a class. Mom and Dad told us that we are all brothers and sisters and that we are supposed to look out for each other while they are at work. When they get back we are all going to to go home and be happy together forever, and those of us who were nice to our brothers and sisters will get a treat. Those who weren’t may get a little punishment.

    There, now I have created a more efficient and superior religious narrative to Mormonism that answers all of life’s probing questions just as empirically, and I have stripped it entirely of everything that doesn’t have anything to do with answering the question of “hope” in the fear of death, and being good neighbors.

  37. E.
    October 29, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    #27: Genius.
    #35: That was my initial thought as well. What if the institution or at least my (totally valid) concerns about it is the arrow? Would the OP still recommend that you remove the arrow and ask questions later?

    Maybe I’m in a bad mood today, but this looks like high-brow apologetics with little connection to how the Church currently works.

  38. Scott
    October 29, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    Is this a joke? As I understood this, you’re saying (a) we’ll all die and (b) people should just ignore their questions about Mormonism? (Took you waaay too many words to say that, btw.)

    You also assume that a god of some sort exists. Big assumption.

  39. Steve Smith
    October 29, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    Suleyman (18), urban legend to some, reality to others. Hinduism is best understood as a macro-religion, within some strains of which the cow’s sanctity is linked to reincarnation.

  40. Jeff
    October 29, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    Thank you for your post today. It’s given me a lot to think about and I’m truly grateful for that.

    I read this post hoping that I’d have a better grasp of why people stay when Mormonism, as you say, can neither be proven or disproven. It has overwhelming evidence against it, given the world in which we live and the information available for us to utilize.

    That being said, I was hopeful. As I read, I was overwhelmed with the same rhetoric taught by my past leaders of “don’t ask any questions, just stay on the conveyor belt of life along with all of the other Mormons” that I’ve been hearing for years. Why is that an acceptable answer? It seems to belittle our intelligence, betray the suggestion of “read, ponder and pray”, and fly in the face of the faculties we’ve been given to make decisions.

    Lastly, if Mormonism isn’t about Mormonism, then why does it exist? why don’t we just call it grace, help one another to live a life consecrated to grace, and leave it at that? I’m laying down my Mormonism in hopes that I someday find a way to live in the light, meet those around me and myself with grace and love, and live a life that is centered around those principals.

    Again, thank you!

  41. Rose
    October 29, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    I enjoyed your very thoughtful peace. I think though that Mormonism is about works NOT grace. It’s really not a very good fit for grace (in my opinion) but appreciate you see if differently.

  42. Mark
    October 29, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    If there is a God and he is the God of Mormonism, I highly doubt he will reward someone for just going through the motions which is really what you are suggesting with this article.

    Being told what to do and then just doing it without thought is really satan’s plan by taking away free agency. Who’s plan are you suggesting we follow when you make statements like this? You can give away your free agency but I’ll use my God given brain.

  43. D.
    October 29, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    “But I don’t believe the reason he’s chosen to set aside these things is because he wants to see if we’re willing to believe things without good evidence.”

    Lack of evidence isn’t the problem with Mormonism, it’s the giant pile of contradictory evidence. In other words, is the God of Mormonism testing us to to see if we’ll believe things with bad evidence?

  44. jdh
    October 29, 2014 at 6:07 pm


    You express eloquently the reason that I stay, even though I know this Church isn’t true.

    (1) Even if Jesus is not God, he was probably right about the path to happiness. And the Church includes that lowest common denominator of Christianity. Our cannon has the New Testament and occasionally we hear a talk or lesson about behaving with Christ-like charity or “grace” toward one another.

    In other words, if (a) your actual belief ranges between agnosticism to Christian universalism and (b) you’re comfortable being a cafeteria member–either unabashed or closeted—then you MIGHT AS WELL be a Mormon. Because, just like all the World’s other religions, Mormonism too encourages people to be kind.

    (2) The benefit of agnosticism, based in a recognition of the limitations of human knowledge, is that you don’t have to worry about missing out on a truth-seeking journey. There’s nothing to find; so why look elsewhere?

    (3) I get to support my wife and kids who still believe it. And I keep my in-laws off my back.

    (4) I’ve decided I can live without a temple recommend, since I have no testimony of the Restoration.

    No kidding, that is why I stay. And I think that’s what you’re trying to make space for, right?

  45. Greg
    October 29, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    Enjoyable article. I said the same thing in my head (but it didn’t sound as well worded). Many people comment about mormonism as if it were a living, breathing entity. But it is only what we make it. If it’s only about works, it’s my fault. I’m accountable as to whether my home teaching is done out of routine, or if I visit my neighbor out of Christlike love (including breaking some rules in doing so if I feel called to do so). If mormonism is hollow, it’s my fault. I choose how to live my religion – and I can’t blame it on culture. On the one hand, it’s complicated (at what point is it ok to ask about who shot the arrow?), on the other hand it’s simple – Learn of Him, go and do thou likewise.

    We must make Christ our focus (incorporating His teachings into our daily living) and allow space for secondary things to sort themselves out.

  46. imogen
    October 29, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    I love this letter. Just what I needed today. Thank you for writing it.

  47. Mark Foster
    October 29, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    I appreciate the open-mindedness and humility of this essay. I only wish it were true, that it was as logically coherent and spiritually honest as it is eloquent. The institution of the LDS church existentially defines itself as “the only true and living church.” It defines its ordinances–and demands compliance with its dogma and conformity with the codes of behavior required to receive those ordinance–as absolutely essential for salvation, up to and including secret signs and token required to pass angels who stand as sentinels before heaven. The church self-defines as a peculiar people, by that meaning its truth claims are extraordinary, supernatural, exclusive, literal, and absolute. Any other pretension to openness, tolerance and inclusiveness fall short of these own fundamental institutional assertions. You and I may wish and hope and pray that it were different, but 184 years of recorded church history will forever and irrefutably argue against us. The church said (and says) it was one thing: the only true and living church. It may be many other good and noble things, but it is not that one thing. For a person of spiritual integrity, the conversation about what to do next with Mormonism must begin there.

    Not that individual members like Adam Miller can’t posses rare qualities of spiritual open-mindedness and adaptability. But the institution itself cannot follow suit. Adam Miller and the rest of us, having tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, must now leave the garden of eden and travel into the lone and dreary world, a.k.a. real life. It hurts like hell. It’s terrifying. But we adapt. It gets better, and it’s real, and beautiful, and true.

    “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”–Carl Sagan

  48. October 29, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    Thank you for this Adam.

  49. imogen
    October 29, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    Jeff (40), Adam is casting Mormonism as a mechanism. To use an imperfect metaphor, it’s a doorknob. The open doorway is grace, but the door is shut. Hence, we need a doorknob, not because doorknobs are inherently pretty or whatever, but because the door must somehow be opened.

  50. Adam Smith
    October 30, 2014 at 1:42 am

    If David Foster Wallace and Joseph Smith procreated a new religion this is what it would look like.

    I’m sorry, I love the creative thinking, but Mormonism insists on truth claims and makes you obey and believe those truth claims. You’ve invented a new religion in your head to avoid facing the consequences of what you surely know.

  51. Roman
    October 30, 2014 at 4:19 am

    Did this post touch a nerve on some DAMU site? It doesn’t seem to have attracted the typical T&S demographics to the comments section.

  52. Athie
    October 30, 2014 at 8:00 am

    Roman, I take it that this essay was written to doubters. So these comments seem to involve the intended audience.

  53. Admin
    October 30, 2014 at 8:05 am

    (Roman, there have been a large number of hits on Times&Seasons from the Reddit Exmormon page. I can’t correlate particular comments, of course, but if someone’s coming here from the Exmormon page, they likely no longer qualify as a “doubter.” Surely the comments here are a mix of people from all kinds of stages of faith.)

  54. Athie
    October 30, 2014 at 9:01 am

    I just searched the Exmormon Reddit, and there seems to be no link to this.

  55. Admin
    October 30, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Athie, I don’t have any experience with Reddit, so I can only tell you what the internal WordPress referral stats say (namely reddit.com/r/exmormon, which seems fairly clear, though it could conceivably be linking to another post). But that’s not the only obvious spike in referrals to T&S from disaffected sites in the last few days.

  56. jdh
    October 30, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Unless I’m alone, this article also may have stricken a chord with people who regularly follow this page but haven’t previously commented. You drew out shadow readers.

  57. Rosalynde Welch
    October 30, 2014 at 9:36 am

    It looks like Adam may not engage here in the comments, so I thought I would add a thought or two that might clarify what (I think) he means in this piece. I don’t speak for him, of course. When he says, “Mormonism is about grace,” I don’t think he has in mind a traditional Protestant “Jesus loves me, this I know” sort of strictly theological concept. I think he has in mind a more general and philosophical notion of grace as givenness: life and experience are given to us as unconditional gifts, and to the extent that we can receive life and experience unconditionally, in the present, without turning experience into an instrument of our own desires or a mirror to our own fantasies, we experience grace. This idea of grace and givenness is central to his more formal theological writing, and I think it informs his more pastoral/devotional writing too, but I’m not sure it’s always fully understood in the latter.

    At the risk of seeming like a fan-girl, here are some passages from his essay “Notes on Life, Grace. and Atonement” that expand on this idea of grace as givenness: “Grace names what comes as a gift. In short, grace names what is given. Or, more precisely: grace names the givenness of whatever is given and received. … The gospel [is] a promise that joy does not depend on what is given but on its givenness. … Thesis: the givenness of life (and with it, the grace of Christ’s atonement) appears to the degree that the absolute character of the present moment is foregrounded as such. Or, the givenness of life (and with it, the grace of Christ’s atonement) appears to the degree that the present moment is received as unconditionally imposed without regard to how one arrived there or where one is going. The atonement, as what gives life, is what calls us back to the living grace of the present moment.”

    That is fairly dense theology, it’s a bit mannered, and I’m not sure whether the meaning will come through in excerpts. But it has been a very powerful and fruitful re-framing of grace in my own personal life, and I think it is worth the effort to understand and consider.

    So in the most basic sense, Mormonism is about grace, because Mormonism has been given to each of us in some way — either we inherited it from our parents, or at some point in our lives it asserted itself, gave itself, to each of us with sufficient urgency that we received it. And, as Adam says, the thing about grace and gifts is that *what* the gift is matters much less than the fact that it *is* a gift. Receiving a gift, any gift, unconditionally, in the present moment, is a spiritual practice that disciplines and liberates the soul.

    But in that most basic sense, *any* and *every* religion and set of ideas is about grace, and I don’t think Adam would dispute that. And, of course, Mormonism is only one element in an impossibly full and layered account of any person’s experience — it is not the only set of ideas and urgencies that break against us. So accepting it “unconditionally” does not mean following it blindly or totalizingly. We owe our true fidelity to *life*, not to Mormonism in itself.

    Is there anything unique about Mormonism, more than, say, another religious tradition or “The 7 habits of Highly Effective Persons”, that is oriented more immediately toward grace? I’m not sure. There might be. For one thing, its highly improbable origin stories throw the nature of “unconditional acceptance” into high relief. (Again, this is NOT to say that one ought to or must accept the origin stories credulously or blindly — but it does draw our attention to the process of receiving, accepting, in a way that easier stories might not.) And for another, Mormonism’s account of eternity is in essence a continuation of the present — not an “absolute future” of gold-paved streets and courts of angels. Grace is about directing and re-directing our attention, carefully and continuously, to the present moment — and I think that chimes well with Mormonism’s account of eternity.

    Anyway, for whatever that is worth, for folks who might sincerely want to engage this piece or Adam’s work more generally.

  58. Josh Smith
    October 30, 2014 at 9:44 am

    jdh (44 and 56):

    If you’re anywhere near Idaho Falls, I’ll buy you lunch sometime.

    “There’s nothing to find, so why look elsewhere?”

    That sounds like an atheist. An agnostic is a wee bit more ambivalent. “I don’t know if there’s anything to find, but I’m content to look right here.” Something like that, no?

  59. October 30, 2014 at 10:17 am

    re 57,


    Thanks for expounding. Your comment matches with how I’ve understood Adam’s various comments/writings, so I think that’s helpful, but it still points out the problematic points:

    So, as I see it, there’s a tension between ideas such as

    So in the most basic sense, Mormonism is about grace, because Mormonism has been given to each of us in some way — either we inherited it from our parents, or at some point in our lives it asserted itself, gave itself, to each of us with sufficient urgency that we received it.


    But in that most basic sense, *any* and *every* religion and set of ideas is about grace, and I don’t think Adam would dispute that. And, of course, Mormonism is only one element in an impossibly full and layered account of any person’s experience — it is not the only set of ideas and urgencies that break against us. So accepting it “unconditionally” does not mean following it blindly or totalizingly. We owe our true fidelity to *life*, not to Mormonism in itself.

    vs something like

    Receiving a gift, any gift, unconditionally, in the present moment, is a spiritual practice that disciplines and liberates the soul.

    and many of our own actual experiences. Like, there is a sense that the hurt and pain many of us experience is because we do not perceive that Mormonism is about grace — even as defined as “receiving a gift, any gift, unconditionally, in the present moment.” Instead, Mormonism is about a story — it is a story about what truth claims one should accept, a story about what is acceptable morality and what are acceptable roles for men, what are acceptable roles for women…regardless of whether or not these roles or moral rules or truth claims fit our own understanding of ourselves or the world.

    And we see this more broadly with religion in general, so it doesn’t seem that *any* and *every* religion is about grace. To the contrary, *lived* religion does not ignore the questions about religion — it emphasizes them week in and week out at Sunday School or wherever.

    If Mormonism is to be accepted simply because we inherited somehow, then this isn’t a ringing endorsement of Mormonism vs any other of a number of things we have “inherited” or otherwise run into.

  60. jdh
    October 30, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Josh (58),

    Thank you. Alas, I’m in Vegas.

    I agree with your comment 23. I too have found that with good humor, tact and generosity while engaging in the tribe, I’m welcome even with a high degree of authenticity. Many friends don’t get why I come given my unbelief. But we enjoy each other’s company and they’re glad I’m there. It helps that my bishop is an Uchtdorf guy.

    Good catch. I should have said “I doubt there’s anything findable (re Truth in the cosmos), so why look elsewhere?”

  61. Rosalynde Welch
    October 30, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Andrew, I’m not totally sure that I’ve understood your points, so correct me if I’ve misconstrued you. But it seems like you’re looking first to the *content* of Mormonism (“Mormonism is about a story…”). I think this is a natural and utterly understandable instinct, but Adam’s account of grace asks you to set that aside for a moment — set aside whether you like, agree with, recognize, understand, or prefer the content of Mormonism — and simply see it, know it, and live in it, even in the boredom and hurt and pain that it may offer you, as one element of the givenness of life. It may well be that, over time, life gives you a road out of or away from Mormonism. But grace frames that as a process of *acceptance,* not dismissal.

    Perhaps your objection is that Adam’s concept of grace/givenness did not itself originate in Mormonism. I think that is probably true — he’s quite clear that these ideas come from continental philosophy, in particular Jean-Luc Marion. He finds original and compelling readings of Mormon scripture to situate the ideas in Mormon thought, but they are borrowed from an outside tradition, for sure. That’s how religion has always been made — Israelites borrowing and repurposing Canaanite religion, for instance, or early Christians borrowing from Platonism. That acknowledgment is difficult for any religious institution to make, of course.

    There does remain the conceptual problem that if unconditional acceptance of the unconditionally given is what grace requires, how are we ever to reform/improve Mormonism? I think that is a live question, and I don’t completely know how to address it. Adam himself can be quite critical of certain aspects of Mormon lived experience. One solution might be an ethic of “care” — part of accepting the givenness of life is caring for what is given, and that entails healing, curing, treating weakness. So we “care” for the religious tradition that was given to us by nourishing and strengthening it. Or perhaps forward motion comes through the jostling of all the many ideas, urgencies, bodies, particles, words against us as we experience life — these jostlings push us forward as we hold Mormonism in our hands, and that moves the Church forward as well (though I’m wary of the linear model implied in my metaphor!).

    “f Mormonism is to be accepted simply because we inherited somehow, then this isn’t a ringing endorsement.” On this I simply disagree. I think it is in fact the *only* legitimate endorsement of anything, if “inherit” is construed broadly as the process by which life passes through us and we through it.

  62. jdh
    October 30, 2014 at 11:15 am

    Thank you, Rosalynde. That is helpful.

    So, put very simply, “bloom where you’re planted” and accept that your garden is Mormonism?

  63. jdh
    October 30, 2014 at 11:35 am

    I just want to make sure that I understand the central concept.

    I don’t mean to diminish the idea. Kant took over 100 pages to unpack the one-sentence categorical imperative.

  64. Rosalynde Welch
    October 30, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Yeah, I think that’s pretty close, as long as we understand that blooms aren’t always fragrant and gardens are mostly dirt — that is, it’s not an “accentuate the positive” thing. Grace calls us to attend to the present as it is.

  65. wjc
    October 30, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Does this philosophy also apply if you’re born and raised in Scientology, the Moonies, Warren Jeffs’ group, ultra orthodox Judaism? How often and how seriously should you investigate and consider whether you’ll find more peace, piece of mind, room for personal growth, etc. outside of your faith tradition? Rather than promote bloom where you’re planted, I feel strongly that people (and especially women) should be encouraged to and heralded for questioning, testing the boundaries of their inherited faith traditions, seriously entertaining the possibilities of lives lived outside of those traditions. It is something all of Joseph Smith’s early converts did, all of my pioneer immigrant ancestors did, and something I’ve done by finding my way out of Mormonism. It’s something I will encourage my atheist-raised children to do.

  66. Dave K
    October 30, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    Thank you Rosalynde. To extend the “bloom where you are planted” analogy, it’s helpful to remember that dirt is not all that is need for growth. Light is critical. Many of those I see struggling to stay in the church are not just struggling to keep their roots grounded, but struggling to reach for a sustaining light that is blocked by those above them.

    To wit, may I recommend “The Trees” by the immortal RUSH. Note that the dual meaning of “Oaks” is purely coincidental, I assure you :)

    There is unrest in the forest
    There is trouble with the trees
    For the maples want more sunlight
    And the oaks ignore their pleas

    The trouble with the maples
    (And they’re quite convinced they’re right)
    They say the oaks are just too lofty
    And they grab up all the light
    But the oaks can’t help their feelings
    If they like the way they’re made
    And they wonder why the maples
    Can’t be happy in their shade

    There is trouble in the forest
    And the creatures all have fled
    As the maples scream ‘Oppression!’
    And the oaks just shake their heads

    So the maples formed a union
    And demanded equal rights
    ‘The oaks are just too greedy
    We will make them give us light’
    Now there’s no more oak oppression
    For they passed a noble law
    And the trees are all kept equal
    By hatchet, axe and saw

  67. October 30, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Rosalynde (re 62),

    Yes, I think my pushback against Adam is that I don’t think you can legitimately bracket or set aside the story. The institution promulgates and teaches the story, but even more, the institution asserts that the story is critical. Adam Miller lacks the institutional legitimacy to tell anyone to set aside the story as a result.

    And because the story is institutionally promoted, lived Mormonism cannot be separated from it. Living Mormonism entails performing one’s agreement with the story, whether it be through bearing testimony, missionary work, answering temple recommend questions, teaching a Sunday school class, or simply being in Sunday school class. To the extent Adam suggests setting aside the story, he actually isn’t advocating lived Mormonism.

    I find it strange to phrase things as “over time, life gives you a road out of or away from Mormonism.” This too seems too passive to be authentically Mormon. Rather, as agents, we can actively and consciously choose whether to remain within Mormonism. So the real question is upon what should one base his or her continued involvement. The faith crisis is just as given as Mormonism is… So it represents a fork in the road for people to evaluate and reevaluate. Any dismissal will therefore be an acceptance of something else.

    It seems you also recognize though that this isn’t actually Mormon though. And I’ll say that conceptually, I have no problem with borrowing from other traditions, reinterpreting Mormon concepts with those other traditions in mind. But the basic issue is that in Mormonism, individuals do not have the legitimacy or authority to reinterpret, borrow, etc. To do so personally is one thing, but is to advocate this more broadly is heresy at best, apostasy at worst. Adam can borrow and reinterpret, but then should accept that this is not what people understand Mormonism to be, and more importantly, is not what the institution approves Mormonism to be.

    This shouldn’t be news to Adam, though. I mean, he’s written a lot about theology being free to be creative and, well, gratuitous (gracefull) , precisely because it is not institutional. But the implication is that said theology is not binding.

    Regarding reforming Mormonism, this is a place where one’s standing with the institution really matters. If you are perceived as a threat to the institution, as too far away from the institution’s *story*, you will be excommunicated. Regardless of if you see yourself as acting from care, etc. The institution decides what forward is, in other words (acknowledging the problems of a linear model).

  68. Athie
    October 30, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Rosalynde, you’ve highlighted the substance of my dissatisfaction with Adam’s essay and indeed his broader work — the central reason why I think this Mormon theology is ultimately not viable and perhaps ultimately hollow.

    You say: “Receiving a gift, any gift, unconditionally, in the present moment, is a spiritual practice that disciplines and liberates the soul.”

    Is this true? To me it is not obviously correct, or even particularly likely. (It is also rather evidently far broader and more liberal than Adam’s views — he has had rather sharp things to say about the inadequacy of various non-Mormon “gifts,” particularly secular traditions, in other contexts.) Consider the “gift” of being raised a member of the KKK. I think the many unfortunate children who have received this particular gift might do well to practice a kind of resigned acceptance: this was my fate, and I had to struggle out of this morass before I could thrive. But surely we would not want to attach any kind of spiritual power to a decision to remain faithful to the KKK simply because that was a gift that was given?

    It seems self-evident in this example (and really by extension in all others) that there is no special spiritual value in remaining committed to a tradition or practice simply because it is, as it were, there. Engagement with the consequences of involvement is morally unavoidable, and Adam’s dodging of this work is troubling.

  69. October 30, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    There are two different questions one can ask about Mormonism: “Is it literally true?” and “Is it good?”

    The CES letter is about the first question “Is it true?” Your essay ignores that and instead attempts to address the question “is it good?” It is an apple and orange comparison.

    Mormonism, in my experience, does exactly the opposite of what is purported here – it draws you away from living a good life and focusing on the important things with a treadmill of busy work and arbitrary rules. Mormonism, in practice, more closely parallels the Pharisees that the teaching of Jesus.

    Mormonism contains within it the theology and idealogy you speak of but has become so Pharisaic that I submit it does much more harm than good to its practitioners.

  70. Mark Foster
    October 30, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    The final epiphany of most of the great mystics and sages of history is that the kingdom of god is within you, that god is love, and that we are all connected. I would contend that this is the beautiful and resonant metaphorical power of Mormon theology. Forget temples, tithing, signs and tokens, blood atonement, oaths of vengance, blood penalties, papyrii, zelph, polygmay, polyandry, rocks in a hat, Lamanites, curse of Cain, homophobia, small mindedness and anti-intellectualism. We are gods. We are family. This is what sticks. You don’t need to be baptized, alive or dead, to receive that wisdom and grace. If the LDS Church can acknowledge that Truth, I’ll come running back. Not to join, but to welcome.

  71. Athie
    October 30, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    Brian, it’s worse than that. Adam simply assumes without serious argument that the answer to the question of goodness is positive.

  72. DQ
    October 30, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    So many disaffected experts on “Mormonism”.

    Jesus did not tell the Pharisees to show the love of God while abandoning the law, but that “these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

    True Latter-day Saints take this doctrine seriously. We know the law points to Christ, and that the purpose in following the law is to get closer to Christ and not to make a God out of the law in itself. However, true to our nature as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we sometimes miss the mark and get tunnel vision on the law and fail to fully measure up as disciples.

    In a sense, I’m perfectly willing to “own” any obscure doctrine or teaching in my faith’s past because anyone throwing it in my face or attempting to teach it has no authority to do so, so I feel no compulsion to answer their attempted stumbling blocks. So hyperventilate about Adam or Blood Atonment, or Plural Marriage or Priesthood, and someone truly converted to the gospel can dismiss such quasi-educated ramblings without argument as the disaffected are attempting to teach things they at best possess only snapshots of historical knowledge about; with nothing being revealed from the true source of all knowledge on these topics.

    To those who think we can just preach that we’re all God’s children and should love one another without any further requirement, the Lord can not look on sin with the least degree of allowance, and the way to eternal life will always be the straight and narrow. I can’t show my love for someone by condoning actions which brings harm to themselves, society, and future generations. Sorry, but the sophistry of many great thinkers has not led to happiness throughout the generations. There’s only one lasting way that can be achieved. I can testify that the times in my life I’ve been closest to God and had visions of eternity unfolded before me is when I am living the law and walking in the path of discipleship.

    Do not presume that you can be Christ-like while knowing and violating the law without repentance.

    As far as this letter, I enjoyed it, and especially the Buddha story, for an attempt to explain one dimension of our faith. But if you try to expand this analogy, it necessarily fails and becomes intellectual debate fodder, which plenty of disbelievers can match with their own reason.

  73. Mark A. Clifford
    October 30, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    Oh boy, Adam.
    The agony and the joy this has produced.
    You must be on to something here.
    But, as always, wonderful.

  74. Steve Smith
    October 30, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    As to questions about Adam’s post being referenced elsewhere, I’ll say that I did see that John Dehlin linked to the OP through Facebook (and he heaped praise upon Adam’s post), and JD has a lot of DAMU followers. I don’t know why his post prompted so many to respond. At any rate it is a sign that many in the DAMU are frustrated with many of the new apologetic approaches, of which Adam approach is one. It is as if Adam is saying that truth claims just don’t matter and if you focus truth claims, you’re focusing on the wrong thing. After thinking this over a bit, I have found more sympathy for Adam’s view and wish that more people in the LDS church took his approach. However, there can be no denying that the truth claims matter and that the LDS leaders were the first ones to push the issue of the truth claims, not the critics.

  75. Steve Smith
    October 30, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    “I’m perfectly willing to “own” any obscure doctrine or teaching in my faith’s past because anyone throwing it in my face or attempting to teach it has no authority to do so”

    That’s fine and great. But not everyone sees it that way. You have to recognize that the people to originally “throw” many of these controversial issues in “people’s faces” (so to speak) were not the critics, but the LDS leaders themselves. Joseph Smith pushed the issue of plural marriage, Brigham Young did so for the Adam-God theory. Other leaders pushed the issue of denying priesthood to blacks. And past members were constantly put in positions in which they were asked about this by non-Mormons and former Mormons and felt forced to defend it in one way or another. Many got tired of defending these issues and threw in the towel. So it isn’t as if critics are cooking up the claims and throwing them in the LDS church’s face.

  76. Walker
    October 30, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Thanks to Adam for graciously offering up his thoughts. As always provocative, I think there is a lot to mull on here, and for that I am grateful.

    To address the criticism leveled by Steve Vaisey #14 (whom I deeply admire from a professional perspective), I respectfully think Steve – along with several other new commenters – is misreading Adam’s intentions here.

    If I am reading him right, Adam’s contention is not that truth doesn’t matter. He contends that we usually seek to discover the wrong types of truths.

    It’s not (necessarily) that the Church’s truth claims are invalid, it’s that the validity of the gospel becomes more evident more quickly through the living of it than through wrestling with whether or not to believe it.

    It’s not that we need to reconcile ourselves to “blooming where we are planted,” regardless of where that may be. Rather, we ought to spend our time planting seeds, pulling weeds, pruning, hedging, digging, working, and caring in precisely the way that Alma, Christ, and modern prophets urge us to.

    This orientation of carefully, attentively working out his salvation has “transformed [him] in all kinds of ways that [he] finds to be difficult and uncomfortable and extremely valuable.” This transformation is the redemptive power that comes through living something that truly has the power to save. This is the essence of faith, repentance, and salvation.

    Is this transformative power exclusive to Mormonism? Not at all. But it’s not just everywhere either. And I’ll add my testimony to Adam’s in asserting that this sort of redemptive, self-less, thickly-relational, profoundly challenging, and hugely rewarding experience absolutely can be found in Mormonism. Especially if we can avoid distractions.

  77. lbw
    November 3, 2014 at 10:09 am

    @DQ I’m not a disaffected Mormon. I’m an active Mormon and I think you’re off a bit on your comment.

    It comes across really indignant and self-righteous. I think its comments like this that make a lot of these disaffected Mormons leave the church in the first place.

    If people want to bash the church…. let them. If you take a “righteous indignation” approach in trying to argue, you really just help their cause, and prove their points. Which quite often is that Mormons are a bunch of over-orthodox, self righteous sycophants.

    As far as Christ and the law goes, I think you are also a bit off or I’m misunderstanding you. Jesus occasionally showed respect for the mosaic law and the law of the elders, but he generally defined both during his life (which got him excommunicated) and did away with both for his followers after death. The “law” had become dead, long before the elders and high priest used it to kill “whores” and to have Jesus killed. In my experience we Mormons all too often fall into the same problems of looking beyond the mark of the law and holding to the letter instead of the spirit of it.

  78. Old Man
    November 3, 2014 at 10:35 am


    Jesus “occasionally showed respect for the mosaic law?” How occasional was it? One day a week? Without going into a long rant about how Jesus/Jehovah gave the law, then fulfilled the law, was the very embodiment of the sacrifices and ceremonies required by the law, do you realize what you just wrote? And quite bluntly, if our fellow Latter-day Saints come off a bit over-orthodox, it is often because of the intense gratitude and bonds of love they cherish in a covenant of grace. They are repulsed by thoughts and actions which violate the words of the God who bound their wounds and granted them a way to salvation and exaltation.

  79. November 4, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Good article. I agree with many points. But I think you leave a little bit of an impression that there is no evidence for the BOM and other JS revelatory experiences. There is the mountain of evidence backing up the content of the Abraham stories in the PofGP. There’s the phase added to an Isaiah chapter of the BOM that was from a Bible version not translated to English yet. There are amazing pictures my brother brought back from a trip to Mexico with a picture of frescoes of “the high god”, “the descending god”, and “the invisible god” on the outside and info from the written, online, non-Mormon tourist guide from Tulum stating that in the temple there they “learned about the cosmos” and had different sections depicting “earth” and “the heavens”. There were also pictures on the outside of another temple that had a man and woman with a snake between them and a compass and square down at their feet, and statues of elephants (which some critics continue to say didn’t exist there) and another outside picture of a man with his hands out a certain way that blew me away as an endowed LDS person. There is, of course, the location of Nahom and the chaismus, that we hear a lot about, but also lots of things we don’t hear as much about such as stories in the Pof GP with names and details that correspond very well to the book of Enoch in the Dead Sea Scrolls. So while I agree that God will not prove he exists and chooses to require us to have faith on lots of really difficult issues, there is evidence out there, so we are not using blind faith, but do have to make a conscious effort to do good, ultimately without proof that it will benefit us in any way.

    I think many of these disaffected LDS are at a disadvantage of being cradle raised LDS and not seeing what the true situation is for families not shielded by the standards of the church for generations. UT is somewhat shielded in general because their culture is protected by strong families even for those that have left the church. I’ve seen my cousins inside and outside the church, and the poor people in my struggling neighborhood with and without the church. Children benefit from the protections from abuse that statistically come from the strong families that church standards promote. Teens benefit from traditional family structures and chastity standards for their mental health (see Reviving Ophelia, among other studies). And the list is long for lifestyle benefits. I love the beautiful culture of hope and cooperation and service I see in my church community and I’m so glad my children have it as a counterbalance to the using, discarding and “what’s in it for me” culture that is all around us.

  80. lbw
    November 5, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    @DQ and others. I run the risk of sounding condescending here… so I apologize in advance. But I imagine I know where you’re coming from because I used to be incredibly “orthodox” (I’m not saying I know how you are, but that you sound like I used to). I would have made comments exactly like yours for at least 10 years after my mission. I could have given that same rant on how “jesus gave the law”. But the more I read of the old testament and the world’s great religious works and then come back to LDS & Christian scripture, pray, and get my own “revelation”, the more the rigidity of that old worldview starts to break apart. The more I see a gospel which is hidden in the rough stone of cultural religion and scripture. I respect the things you said but I think there are pieces of the puzzle you’ve yet to encounter.

    Read the entire law of Moses in a modern translation (NLT is one of the best for dynamic equivalence). Compare it with other ancient legal codes (google it). And ask yourself if Jesus recited this to Moses word for word, of if it makes sense that because Israel wanted an idol (the golden calf) instead of the living god–that he gave them up to lower beings/lower priesthood who gave them what they wanted according to their agency. Read Isaiah or Jeremiah’s denunciation of animal sacrifice. Read the NLT new testament at least a handful of times and see if this is not clearly taught by Stephen, Paul, and others. Read the Masonic ceremonies of Joseph’s Day (this article links to many http://mormonpluralist.com/blog/1839/mormon-temple-ceremony-and-freemasonry/) and decide which parts of Joseph’s teachings were given by Jesus, and which parts were similiarly human constructs or the product of a lower heavenly priesthood.

    I think when you really look into the imperfect aspects of judaic or in our case LDS church history (joseph’s polygamy being the best example), you’re testimony has to be drastically reshaped and becomes more like what this author is trying to say. Which to me is that Mormonism (and all religion) is a means to an end–not an end in itself. It’s not the God we think it is. And when we make it an end or destination of itself (by carving it in stone) it becomes an idol and loses a lot of its power to help us and society grow.

  81. November 7, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Was this intended as a response to the Letter to a CES Director? If so, I’m going to have to agree with others that this letter does not address any of the important topics. I do think this could be a valuable way of looking at the world for those who wish to do so, but it will do very little for the audience Runnells is actually addressing.

  82. Fred
    November 7, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Mormon as I encounter it in the chapels and in General Conference really does seem to be about Mormonism. In many ways it’s the Church of the Church. The constant message seems to be “follow the prophet.” And you think to yourself, great. Let’s see what the prophets have to say. And then you listen to their message, and that message is “follow the prophet.” Mormonism is so inward looking.

    However, Adam’s message and similar messages from folks like the Givens’, while not exactly true to the lived experience of Mormonism for many of us, is at least aspirational. Mormonism SHOULD be about more than just Mormonism, even if isn’t quite there yet.

  83. Cameron N.
    November 9, 2014 at 10:30 am

    I think you’re a little off-base Fred. For example, Sunday Morning session last month had three talks in a row about following prophets and then the Prophet basically said ‘follow Jesus.’ Mormonism has gotten even more Christ focuses in local and general meetings over the last two decades.

    Pres. Eyring: Continuing Revelation
    Elder Nelson: Sustaining the Prophets
    Sis. McConkie: Live According to the Words of the Prophets
    […] President Monson “As we look to Jesus as our Exemplar and as we follow in His footsteps, we can return safely to our Heavenly Father.” The whole talk compared our path as disciples to Jesus’ example.

  84. Fred
    November 10, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    I recall that exact sequence of events, but imagine if the other three had focused on a spiritual message. We hear increasingly that all 15 are prophets/seers/revelators. But, there is still a large portion of the content that is focused repetitively on the church and the prophet. We’re obsessed with the vehicle of the message, often at the expense of delivering any substantive message at all.

  85. Erick Kuhni
    November 10, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    Cameron 83:

    That’s no brainer. It would never be palatable to the general public, for the Prophet to get up and say:

    “Brothers and Sisters, you must do as I say!”

    Instead, every other person can say that for him, but once it gets to Monson, he still has to follow the same formula of passing the buck. So Eyring can say “follow the Prophet” pointing to Monson, but Monson can’t say “follow the Prophet” while pointing to himself, so instead he says “…er..um…Follow Jesus”, knowing that since he is Jesus’s alleged mouthpiece, the message is tantamount to “do what I say”.

    It is the ultimate religious M.O., ie, blame it all on God or pass the buck. Follow Christ’s example is just the same as follow the Mormon Church’s behavioral prescriptions/proscriptions, when the Church is the one who can define Christ’s example. Religions define God, and then dodge accountability (though the preach accountability like they invented it) by pushing every socially controversial aspect of their faith on to their unreachable and unaccountable God. For example…the recent LDS article on Polygamy. The main point on the Church’s website is that Joseph Smith didn’t want to do it, but God made him.

  86. November 10, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    I beg to differ. I’ve been digging into Conference talks a lot lately and there’s a lot of substance. There’s tons of things that are helpful on a day to day basis with how I act toward my family, giving time to serve, etc. etc. Polygamy doesn’t affect me on a daily basis except that I’m here because some of my ancestors were 2nd and 3rd wives. Even giving respect to the prophet is helpful, otherwise we have the pick-and-choose attitude about religion that so many do these days, so the wisdom of religion benefits them not at all.

  87. Erick Kuhni
    November 10, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    I am always perplexed why Mormon defenders speak in favor of religion in general, such as extolling the “wisdom of religion”, while belonging to a religion that has the apostasy as one of it’s fundamental doctrines. If I were a Mormon than I would only be interested in the wisdom of Mormonism, and have a rather cynical attitude towards other religions. Even if I was sympathetic to the religious adherents of other faiths, I would ultimately scrutinize their teachings. So…is religion in general wise or good, or only Mormonism? Because if we are going to be more ecumenical about the value of religion, I’m not sure Mormonism has a place, in which case it would at least be one of the more “unwise” religions, so that picking and choosing may be the policy after all. That of course says nothing about the arbitrariness of zero-sum devotion to religion in the first place.

  88. November 10, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    My bad, I should have been more specific which religions have benefits. I would suspect many have some benefits. Specifically Christian religions have pretty tangible benefits when Christ’s commandments are actually followed.

    I’m sure you’re not surprised that I disagree that Mormonism is an “unwise religion”. In my research about my beliefs I have discovered many benefits. Here is a very abbreviated list of benefits I have felt. 1) Fasting once a month is optimal for your body. 2) Temple marriages statistically last longer, thus thousands of children are safer from abuse than they would be in a non-marital situation, which is becoming more and more common. 3) Traditional marriages help teenaged girls be more emotionally healthy and confident (see Reviving Ophelia). 4) I have benefited from my husband repeatedly being reminded to treat his family kindly. 5) My children and husband have benefited from me being reminded repeatedly to be patient and kind. 6) Alcohol, even in moderation, is bad for your heart. 7) Many children are mistreated because of alcoholism, which the WOW helps us avoid. I personally have never known a church member who had a drinking problem. 8) In my childhood my poor family was helped financially and with food many times through the church. I see that with poor members of my ward now.

    I could go on and on, but I believe I have many examples of my religion being a wise choice.

  89. Erick Kuhni
    November 10, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    yeah…I’m going to avoid the back and forth that would ensue from debating these points. Suffice it to say, even if the cause-and-effect relationships you are asserting on each of your points existed, none of these points have anything to do with Jesus Christ and him crucified.

  90. November 10, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    You’re right about the back and forth, it can get too intense. But just to clarify: the list of benefits I’ve received from my religion was in response to you saying it is an “unwise religion”. Those benefits and the pages more I could list speak to that characterization being not true. And your previous point of prophets passing the buck isn’t true either, in my experience, because each of the benefits I listed occured because of people following specific advice that the prophet gave at conference or in the other programs set up under their direction.

    And I could list the benefits of following Jesus’ commandments from the New Testament, if that’s what you are looking for. But you could probably guess the benefits of doing unto others as you would have them do to you, worrying more about goodness than money, judge not, love your enemies, go the second mile, etc. etc. Christians have high standards to live up to, but when they do, it’s a beautiful life.

  91. Erick
    November 10, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    No, my point about the relative wisdom within a religion comes down to the accuracy of the worldview from which the religion is derived. For example, the word of wisdom that you are referring to isn’t even followed by the Church. Furthermore, the benefits that you ascribe to the word of wisdom have nothing to do with the promises or circumstances of the word of wisdom. The point is that the argument seems a bit ironic. It places emphasis on the alleged practical benefits of religious wisdom, while refusing to engage on the spiritual veracity of religious origins or wisdom…but based on what you are saying, I could scuttle both prophets and Jesus, and just adopt the religious behaviors irreligiously, and receive the benefits of religious wisdom. It’s ironic because ultimately your practical defense of religious wisdom is intended to make a strong case for the benefits or religion, but it does that by minimizing the divine origins and source of religion (a given religion) from which the wisdom allegedly is derived.

    For example, if I were a believer and someone asked me what the benefits of the Word of wisdom were, I have two choices:

    Choice A) Following the word of wisdom has given me health in my navel and marrow in my bones (a spiritual metaphor), and has given me access to great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.


    Choice B) Following the word of wisdom has prevented me from beating my wife and being a bad neglectful father…at least not a father who neglects his family for booze, but who may neglect his family while serving in Mormon leadership callings.

    Well, I’m going to say that Choice B, which you claimed as a benefit from the wisdom of following the word of wisdom, is no where within the text that defines the word of wisdom. Aside from the obvious fact that you were selective in how you characterized those who follow the word of wisdom by allowing illustrating negative outcomes (which is why I was likewise selective in how I characterized church leaders who neglect their families for serving in leadership callings – if you can do it, so can I). We can always talk about peripheral benefits, but none of that matters so far as salvation is concerned unless the wisdom of religion can be shown to be wise beyond the natural man. Otherwise in the best and most improbable case, religious adherence is practically beneficial for all the wrong reasons…and I don’t know if that is actually wisdom.

    And as a side note, your arguments are all incredibly selective caricatures of wise-man/foolish-man dichotomies, and therefore not very helpful evidence even for your practical defense of the wisdom of religion. And yes, Prophets do pass the buck just as I described. Just like you I could put together a list a mile long, only mine wouldn’t require selective interpretation.

  92. November 10, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Hmmm… I was trying to answer your concerns by very practically answering the assertions you made about prophets pushing accountability off onto an unknowable God. But again, apparently, the form of my answer is unacceptable to you. I thought the list of benefits explained that I thought prophets were inspired (giving support to a divine origin argument) in introducing the standards that function in the church. For the record, I absolutely have received “health in my navel and marrow in my bones”, and I have received access to “treasures of knowledge”. I agree with you that most members don’t live the Word of Wisdom, yet even the small parts they have adopted benefit them to a statistically significant amount. My list of solid benefits wasn’t all about the WoW that you want to focus on, but I’ve been blessed in many areas of my life– those directly traceble to teachings of living prophets. I hope your beliefs lead you to hope and peace.

  93. Erick
    November 10, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    But the benefits you are referring to are negligible to the issue that religion makes, which is salvation. Having a higher population health mean (again granting you an argument you haven’t proven, despite using statistical language, there are no statistics or empirical justifications period) does nothing to address the fact that the purpose of religious wisdom is not guarantee slightly better population health, physical, mental, or otherwise. It is all about salvation.

    My point about Prophets is that the Prophet can’t say “follow the Prophet” without appearing narcissistic. However, because he supposedly speaks for God and Jesus, the saying “follow the Saviors example” is functionally equivalent to “follow me”, minus the appearance of narcissism. Either scenario is inherently narcissistic, but just like all things in the Church (such as dress and grooming standards advocated to the youth, and enforced on missionaries and BYU students) appearance is all that matters.

    As for your personal experiences to receiving knowledge, and finding hope and peace…that’s your business. I make a habit generally of not debating peoples spiritual claims. It really is all a matter for you to be concerned about. If you feel blessed then that is great for you. Without something more than your insistence though, to debate, the conversation is hard to have. So my middle of the road is that I am not compelled by Mormon testimonies (that are rarely ever actual testimonies, just more assertions of “I know”), but I am also not compelled much to dispute them either. If it’s good for you than that’s good for me. I am willing to live and let live to the extent that Mormon’s live and let live…the problem comes from the fact that missionary work is far from live and let live.

  94. November 11, 2014 at 8:50 am

    “I make a habit generally of not debating peoples spiritual claims.” LOL

    Maybe it’s like when the Savior healed people physically so they would know he had power to heal them spiritually as well. Something to think about. Best wishes.

  95. Erick Kuhni
    November 11, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Those two statements interestingly enough, go together. I don’t debate peoples personal spiritual claims because there is usually nothing empirical which we can observe. For example, you stated that you have been blessed with great knowledge as a result of complying with the Word of Wisdom. Great, what can anybody say to that? There is no criteria for evaluating that claim. Take on the other hand an alleged miracle healing by Jesus. A person stricken with the “palsy” is alleged to be suddenly and instantaneously healed simply on the authority of Jesus’s say so. And it goes that Jesus repeatedly claims to heal. This can be evaluated (not now, but hypothetically were he here now we could). This is why I don’t debate most spiritual claims, not because I’m nice, but I don’t like debating something that has no criteria. If someone starts claiming things on the magnitude of a Jesus miracle (as opposed to some ambiguous “I felt the spirit and it convinced me that Mormonism was the true religion”), then I will debate.

    Now the comparison that Jesus’s ability to contravene the natural order of health and sickness by healing on a dime by the word of his power, to the somewhat good but incomplete advice of the word of wisdom, seem’s a little askew. Your comparison was borrowed from a statement once made by Joseph Smith, that “any Church unable to care for the physical needs of its people is in no position to care for their spiritual needs”. Theoretically it sounds nice, though at the time I believe Joseph Smith had in mind the economic care of it’s members, not the physical health. Mormon’s do have lower mean mortality rate, and there is little doubt that the Word of Wisdom is part of that. The use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, do increase the mean mortality rate of a population. However, that becomes a strange social aggregate argument when your religion preaches about the 1. For example, it is generally ill advised in inferential statistics to apply sample group outcomes to a smaller sample, or single data point. In other words, you don’t generally use population average mortality rates to make predictions about a single person. There is wide variation there. I see some difficult theological implications in that teaching. For example, does it then mean that Jesus’s valuation on the worth of souls a commodity valuation? In other words, does he simply care about yielding a high number of salvation winners without actually caring indiscriminately about who? That’s not a great place for hope? More importantly though, why single out the factors of drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol, when the Mormon Word of Wisdom doesn’t address total health. It doesn’t address obesity or moderate exercise, etc. Again this is all very selective, but you are trying to present the handful of benefits afforded by compliance with Mormonism as though it’s all hit’s and no misses. You have to count both hits and misses.

  96. Fred
    November 12, 2014 at 10:37 am


    “I beg to differ. I’ve been digging into Conference talks a lot lately and there’s a lot of substance. There’s tons of things that are helpful on a day to day basis with how I act toward my family, giving time to serve, etc. etc. Polygamy doesn’t affect me on a daily basis except that I’m here because some of my ancestors were 2nd and 3rd wives. Even giving respect to the prophet is helpful, otherwise we have the pick-and-choose attitude about religion that so many do these days, so the wisdom of religion benefits them not at all.”

    It’s not that there is NO substance, it’s just that the substance is diluted by the inward focusing nature of many of these talks.

    Encouraging hero worship of the prophet isn’t helpful and it’s not a spiritual message. It’s a distraction.

    Regarding a pick and choose attitude, everyone has it. All Mormons are cafeteria Mormons. And that’s great – it shows spiritual maturity to use your own discernment and apply your own moral judgement to doctrinal issues. Even if you’re wrong! It’s an important process.

  97. Josh Smith
    November 12, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    “Regarding a pick and choose attitude, everyone has it. All Mormons are cafeteria Mormons. And that’s great – it shows spiritual maturity to use your own discernment and apply your own moral judgment to doctrinal issues. Even if you’re wrong! It’s an important process.”

    –Fred, #96

    Like. I think you’ve got this spot on, Fred. The only thing I would add is that one must have a willingness to accept the consequences of one’s choices. That is, it’s okay to be wrong. The moral agent must be willing to accept the consequences of being wrong.

    So I guess I would phrase it …

    Spiritual maturity is to use one’s own discernment, apply one’s own judgment, take a chance at being wrong, and be willing to accept the consequences.

    Meh. How’s that?

  98. Erick Kuhni
    November 12, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Not Fred – But I’m sold on that definition.

  99. Fred
    November 12, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    Josh Smith (#97):

    I think that’s a great way to phrase it!

    Although I would personally say that the consequences of believing something in error do not include divine judgment for wrong belief.

  100. December 10, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    That’s one of my favorite buddha stories.
    I like it. The way is wide. We must remember that mormonism isn’t the only signpost pointing the way. The way isn’t even in a fixed location because in spatial space everwhere is here and right here is everywhere. You’ve got a buddhist heart adam. I like it.

  101. February 12, 2015 at 1:37 am

    Can I just say how much I love this, Adam?

  102. john jaso
    February 23, 2015 at 12:46 am

    If “Mormonism isn’t about Mormonism”, what differentiates our church from other Christian churches out there?

    The LDS Church makes dogmatic claims (Buddhism doesn’t). Thus, the burden of proof is on the LDS church (i.e. the Church claims to know who shot the arrow and who can counteract the poison). It’s a total cop out to ask people to doubt their doubts when truth is claimed. I understand and accept the concept of faith, but it’s difficult when faith is based on a version of history that is whitewashed at best; fictional at worst.

  103. Hor
    April 1, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Many people confuse their emotions and feelings with feeling the Holy Spirit. Those feelings are not necessarily an indicator of truth. Why is it that we can feel the Spirit when we watch a touching movie or hear a heartwarming story that is not necessarily true? Many have fallen victim to confirmation bias when trying to determine whether the BofM is true. They begin their petition to God with a predetermined bias that it is true and if they receive an answer that it is false, or no answer at all, they assume they did it wrong and have to try all over again. Or something random happens that they interpret as a “sign” or an “answer” that it must be true.

  104. Hor
    April 1, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    Good article on Deseret News illustrates how fallible receiving revelation from the Holy Spirit can be. This revelation received by Joseph Smith proclaimed that the copyright to the Book of Mormon would be sold in Canada. After seeing that this was a huge mistake, Joseph determined that “Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil.”
    If the prophet Joseph Smith could not tell the difference between revelation from God and from Satan, how can the rest of us possibly say with surety that any revelation or witnesses we get are indeed really from God?

  105. April 25, 2015 at 10:00 am

    I love this article what great insights. I read most of the post after words and the most amazing thing is the message seem to flown right over their heads.
    “Okay Okay good stuff….but I got to ask you.. Who shot the arrow? Was he tall or short?

    You got to love people

  106. April 26, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    To do the urgent thing without getting distracted by questions is a good intention; but you could just be standing at an accident scene yelling, “Don’t waste time calling 911! Get busy with the leeches and incense!” Unfortunately, just because the situation is urgent doesn’t necessarily mean that the thing you’re used to doing is the right thing to do.

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