We are witnessing an ever greater movement toward polarity. The middle-ground options will be removed from us as Latter-day Saints. The middle of the road will be withdrawn.
If you are treading water in the current of a river, you will go somewhere. You simply will go wherever the current takes you. Going with the stream, following the tide, drifting in the current will not do.
Choices have to be made. Not making a choice is a choice. Learn to choose now.
–Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
This is an ominous statement from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, and when looking at this statement through a partisan mindset, we might imagine people being pulled to the left or the right. Among people whose politics and religion have become intertwined, there is a perception that God wants us to be either on the partisan left or the partisan right, and “learning to choose” entails learning to choose the side — either the right or the left — that God favors.
That diagram, and that interpretation, are wrong. In fact, what Elder Holland is saying in that quote is better diagrammed like this:
Here we see that the middle ground is not between the political polarities of left and right; rather, it is an area of indecision between gospel principles and the adversary’s inducements to apostasy offered by voices on both the left and right. The issues pulling people into apostasy are not inherently problematic; they can each be explored and addressed in ways that do not result in disillusionment and deconversion. But presently, popular culture is rewarding the opposite of thoughtful engagement with challenging ideas. The advent of social media has resulted in an amplification of voices that make increasing numbers of issues into fuel for apostasy, and many of these voices have the added dimension of being very sentimentally appealing. The prophets are doubling down on core restoration doctrines and narratives, even as those doctrines and narratives fit less and less within popular paradigms.
The prophets are doubling down on core restoration doctrines and narratives, even as those doctrines and narratives fit less and less within popular paradigms.
Expectations that the future church will become relativist or just more accommodating toward doctrinal compromise are not expectations grounded in reality. As far back as 1988, Church President Ezra Taft Benson said of the last days: “As the issues become clearer and more obvious, all mankind will eventually be required to align themselves either for the kingdom of God or for the kingdom of the devil. As these conflicts rage, either secretly or openly, the righteous will be tested.” More recently, President Russell M. Nelson said plainly, “The time is coming when those who do not obey the Lord will be separated from those who do.”
In April 2020, all of the living apostles spoke with a united voice to affirm the founding historical narratives of the restoration, and President Nelson reiterated in the 2021 New Mission Presidents’ training that “this is God’s work, the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that Joseph Smith is the prophet of this last dispensation. A testimony of the Prophet Joseph’s pivotal role in the Restoration is crucial for all of us who are preaching the Lord’s gospel.” He further said of the Restoration Proclamation:
There is power in its declarations. It proclaims truths concerning the Godhead, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the First Vision, the organization of the Lord’s Church, the restoration of priesthood authority, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and modern-day prophets.
Far from a move in the direction of relativism, the prophets are doubling down on core restoration doctrines and narratives, even as those doctrines and narratives fit less and less within popular paradigms that are typical in Western societies.
With these realities in mind, it is also important to note that the prophets well recognize and appreciate the extent to which Church members are living their experiences with different capacities, and in different stages in their faith. This was summarized well in Elder Uchtdorf’s statement:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a place for people with all kinds of testimonies. There are some members of the Church whose testimony is sure and burns brightly within them. Others are still striving to know for themselves. The Church is a home for all to come together, regardless of the depth or the height of our testimony. I know of no sign on the doors of our meetinghouses that says, “Your testimony must be this tall to enter.”
Moreover, given the diversity of culture and life experience in the Church, it is unlikely that the Church will ever insist that members maintain complete uniformity in worldview. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland uses the metaphor of a choir to illustrate how diverse personalities and life experiences can come together and contribute their unique voices to the furthering of God’s purposes:
On those days when we feel a little out of tune, a little less than what we think we see or hear in others, I would ask us, especially the youth of the Church, to remember it is by divine design that not all the voices in God’s choir are the same. It takes variety—sopranos and altos, baritones and basses—to make rich music. To borrow a line quoted in the cheery correspondence of two remarkable Latter-day Saint women, “All God’s critters got a place in the choir.” When we disparage our uniqueness or try to conform to fictitious stereotypes—stereotypes driven by an insatiable consumer culture and idealized beyond any possible realization by social media—we lose the richness of tone and timbre that God intended when He created a world of diversity. Now, this is not to say that everyone in this divine chorus can simply start shouting his or her own personal oratorio! Diversity is not cacophony, and choirs do require discipline…
This diversity of experience and perspective is an asset to the Church, helping members to develop the supreme virtue of charity as we interact with different people, and feel a constant sense of awe and wonder at how God is working in the lives of people who experience the world in different ways than we do. Diversity becomes a problem when it leads to relativism and pantheism, two ideological commitments that combine to obliterate real understanding of the revealed Christ and His gospel.
Relativism is ultimately the basis for Israel’s most persistent sin, idolatry: the fashioning of false gods and the projection of our worldview onto these gods of our own making. Ironically, one of our most persistent idolatries is the refashioning of the divinely revealed Christ into a sentimentally-appealing false Christ named “Jesus,” who exists to make us all feel loved and happy—essentially answering white Westerners’ longings for therapeutic religion. This is not a new phenomenon; from the time of the earliest Christian communities, there has been a constant tendency among believers and observers to fashion a Jesus in our own image. Indeed, this form of idolatry was identified as a primary impetus for the restoration:
…the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people;
For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant;
They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol…
Received several years before the restoration of the priesthood office of apostle, this revelation makes a general statement about what follows the abandonment of the witness testimony of prophets and apostles: namely, an abandonment of God’s ordinances and covenants, and a rejection of authentic revelation of God in favor of idols fashioned in the image of the world. When responding to His disciples’ questions regarding the timing of His return, Christ was quick to warn about the many false Christs that would appear and deceive many. Presently, our false idols—many named “Jesus”—certainly reflect the various images of the world: political, nationalistic, hedonistic, consumerist, antinomian, provincial, self-centered, and invariably affirming of all of our inner narratives.
This idolatrous impulse even extends to the world of scripture scholarship. As New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson tartly observed of his academic discipline:
When scholars, all using the same methods and studying the same materials, derive such a variety of “historical” Jesuses—a revolutionary zealot, a cynic radical, an agrarian reformer, a gay magician, a charismatic cult reformer, a peasant, a guru of oceanic bliss —then one may well wonder whether anything more than a sophisticated and elaborate form of projection has taken place.
The pull toward idolatry is strong among those who once believed, and it has always been thus. See, for example, the story of Almon Babbit, of whom the Lord said “behold, he aspireth to establish his counsel instead of the counsel which I have ordained, even that of the Presidency of my Church; and he setteth up a golden calf for the worship of my people.”
Hence the urgency of President Ballard’s message that “Today we warn you that there are false prophets and false teachers arising; and if we are not careful, even those who are among the faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will fall victim to their deception.” In their denunciations of idolatrous false teachers, modern prophets echo the Lord’s pleadings through Jeremiah, whose emotive and provocative railings against idolatry stand even now as timeless rebukes to pantheism and antinomian relativism.
It was through Jeremiah that the Lord described the defining feature of imaginary idol-gods: they are not personally known. This is echoed later in Jesus’ anticipated harsh answer to some who profess faith:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, and in your name cast out spirits, and in your name done many miracles?’ I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you lawbreakers.”
Why do we prefer unknowable gods? The answer is that unknowable gods offer no resistance to being fashioned in our own image. And we learn from the prophetic record that the world simply does not like the God who is authentically revealed to them. In Jeremiah’s ministry, the authentically-known God of Israel rebukes the people’s favorite sins: their nationalism, their oppression toward the vulnerable in society, their Sabbath-breaking, and their embrace of the sins of their neighbors. We are told that by contrast, people prefer false prophets, as they offer a god who only ever conveys divine affirmation and approval, and never warns of divine judgment. As Jeremiah’s spiritual progeny, Samuel the Lamanite explained it,
But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth—and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet. Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give unto him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him.
The logic of idolatry is that if humanity does not the like the true God who is revealed through a combination of scripture, prophets, and personal and communal experience, then humanity is able and entitled to create new gods, more to our liking, who are affirmed by new prophets, new sacred texts, and new forms of testimony. QAnon, critical theory, religious nationalism, new age religion, and much of the more strident LGBT ally movement have divergent views on many things, but they all have in common this basic idolatrous impulse and premise. It is often phrased in declarations that my god would never allow ____, or my god would never require me to _____. These and similar statements are not wrong—they are indeed factually correct, as they are describing the views of imaginary gods created in our own image.
Despite our popular language of diversity and “holding space,” our impulse to idolatry cannot coexist with revelation, which fact is the driving force behind the stoning of the prophets in ages past, and the current verbal stoning of prophets in the present. Recently, conservative Latter-day Saint commentator Eric Moutsos published a Facebook post where he talked about coming to his spiritual senses on the road to apostasy:
Every speaker and message is different in General Conference for each individual, usually to what they need to hear, but after yesterday I do have a guilty conscience on a few things. But I realized I have been feeling this for a few months now, little by little, but in my mind I’ve chalked it up to “politics” and the conflict it naturally brings between people who believe differently how our country should run…I really didn’t like the way I felt yesterday watching some of general conference. I found my mind drifting around each talk looking for certain political undertones (which yes, they were there) vs. looking for Jesus in each talk. I kept hearing my mind saying “Lord, is it I?” During each talk when I would hear a political MSM buzzword, I would think, “Is he a liberal too?” Or “Does he care or realize that without America, we wouldn’t even have a church, or a TV, or the internet to even be watching conference all together?” Or “Does this person know Joseph Smith was born 13 years after the Bill of Rights [was] ratified?” One person even spoke about “what if Jesus was in the room with you?” …. All I could think and say is, “Yep, and everyone would take off their stupid masks and go up and touch him.”These are the thoughts I was having towards leaders of my church, and though I don’t believe it’s necessarily wrong to allow your mind to wander and simply think, after Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk about division and where our hearts are to one another, especially some of our families, I knew God was speaking to me. And I know I need to repent.
Without authentic revelation of God, religion becomes a matter of coming together as a community and applying our thoughts and feelings to a set of ideas and narratives provided by a thing called “church.”
Without authentic revelation of God, religion becomes a matter of coming together as a community and applying our thoughts and feelings to a set of ideas and narratives provided by a thing called “church.” We are seeing around us more and more demonstration of why this horizontal religion is so appealing in the self-centered white Western world: it tends to serve primarily as a mechanism for validating our perceptions of self. “The church” in this sense exists to make us think and feel certain ways, and when our thoughts and feelings form the basis for our identity, the Church’s inability to validate our thoughts and feelings becomes the substance of an identity crisis. It is no surprise, then, that so many who apostatize describe their experience of thinking and feeling new things in terms of selfhood: “I’m discovering my true self!”
This narrative is especially prevalent in consumerist America. In a recent conversation with a friend, we lamented the Americanization of foreign cuisine, and specifically, the way restaurants in America load foreign dishes with sweeteners in order to increase their appeal to the American sugar-hungry palate. The effect is to decrease subtle nuances of flavor, and essentially make every dish into a dessert. Consumerist, therapeutic American religion follows the same model, transforming challenging elements of theology, scripture, and worship into celebratory and undemanding experiences that deliver a constant sugar high of validation. In perverse irony, American commentators often regard the humble, consecrated, believing, religious frameworks of people in Africa and other areas of the Majority World as somehow inferior to the soulless religious dessert table of the wealthy, “enlightened” West.
This tendency to idolatry is common to both ideological right and left, and it is causing what Elder Holland described as the disappearance of our middle ground of indecision. And the options facing Latter-day Saints are no different from the options faced by the audience of Jeremiah: we can turn to imaginary gods forged in our politics, our academic training, our cultural trends, and other things that we love and crave; or we can turn to the true God known to us through the combined witness of scripture, living prophets, and the collective testimony of believers in our midst.