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A Few Questions Before You Try to Change the Church

Some mistakenly assume that ongoing restoration means every aspect of the church is open to future change. Here are a few questions for anyone ready to declare a grand future development (just out of current prophetic view).

Most long-time church members have a wish list of things we would like to see change in the Church: things we would like to see happen and things we would like to see stop happening. This “wish list” is a normal experience of participating in any organization and, when held in a healthy and generous way, is in no way a sign that we are headed toward apostasy. However, we see all too often that wish lists tend to take on a life of their own. If we don’t critically examine them, they can develop into flaxen cords that lead us away from God and cause us to become stumbling blocks for others.

Here we propose a simple inventory of items to consider before we attempt to coax the Church and its members toward acceptance of our own “wish list” items reflecting rival visions for the future. As LGBT+ issues are maybe the most prominent concerns about the younger generation, most of our discussion will focus on those issues.

1. Have I really interrogated my own assumptions?

The saying “garbage in, garbage out” applies to many areas of human activity, and when it comes to questions of faith, we might rephrase it as “poor assumptions in, poor conclusions out.”

Questions around identity are a core set of assumptions underlying many criticisms of the Church. As we wrote here, the choice to “identify as” something is exactly that—a choice. For example, many Latter-day Saints who live with the experience of same-sex attraction make the conscious choice to not identify with their experience but rather to view it as a present lived reality. This may superficially seem like denial or repression to people steeped in the worldview of expressive individualism, but in fact, the expressive individualist view of identity is a modern construct that makes people miserable.

Turning to a better construct, Buddhism shares with the restored gospel some common insights regarding identity’s tendency for misery-making.  According to Buddhist psychology, when we say of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and desires, “This is who I am,” we are engaging in identity delusion that leads to ever-increasing suffering.  Although you won’t hear this from many popular mindfulness teachers today, the Buddha originally raised caution about “unenlightened” individuals who regard “feeling as self … perception as self … volitional formations as self … consciousness as self …”  From this vantage point, form (matter, or body), feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness are understood to be categories of human experience that we use to construct false identity and a delusionary “false self.”

Many Latter-day Saints who live with the experience of same-sex attraction make the conscious choice to not identify with their experience but rather to view it as a present lived reality.

The Buddhist perception of identity and suffering is also supported by an alarming recent study by Eric Kaufmann:

Among young people, mental health problems, liberal ideology, and LGBT identity are strongly correlated. Using factor analysis in two different studies shows that assuming one common variable between all three traits explains 40-50% of the variation … [The increase in LGBT identification] has been disproportionately concentrated within the overlapping ‘very liberal’ and anxious/depressed part of the young population.

Contrary to a core assumption of expressive individualists, the growing mental health problems associated with these identity choices are not a result of society’s refusal to embrace these identities: in fact, in the time periods under consideration in the study, the correlated trends in rising identification and mental health problems were accompanied by a skyrocketing trend toward acceptance and celebration of these identity constructs in broader society. Acceptance of people’s misery-inducing identity choices does not lessen their misery. It may even be contributing to making it worse, as the current view demands not merely acceptance but active affirmation and celebration, which can’t help but center the “false self.”

2. Have I followed my reasoning where it goes?

In logic, a tool called reductio ad absurdum is employed. The basic idea is that if you take a claim to its conclusion and the conclusion is absurd, then the claim is worth questioning. As an example, imagine we were to say that mathematics is not a reliable guide to reality, and we should abandon our use of it. You might respond by designing a bridge using your intuitions instead of engineering math and then asking us if we would be willing to drive a car on it. Obviously, we wouldn’t. And if we think it sounds absurd to drive a car on a bridge that was designed using only intuitions, then our original claim about the lack of value in mathematics is questionable.

Let’s apply the reductio ad absurdum to questions around identity—specifically to this phrase we often hear: this is how God created me. As we just outlined, it is wrong—and bad for our mental health—to conflate our current thoughts, feelings, desires, and perceptions with self. Our selves existed eternally before any of our mortal experiences and will exist eternally after our mortal experiences. Moreover, our thoughts, feelings, desires, and perceptions are the product of a number of factors: our genetics, our development, our experiences, our culture, our environment, our relationships, our choices, and more. All of these amount to vast numbers of switches being flipped from our time in the womb, through infancy and childhood, and on through the rest of our lives—switches that greatly influence every aspect of how we experience life and the world around us. Yet this is how God created me is a statement that assumes that God personally flips every single switch affecting our development throughout life; that He is somehow the cause of even the sins that other people perpetrate against us that influence our development.

A better assumption, one that avoids such absurdity, is found in a theological claim articulated by Joseph in Egypt, who tells his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” Obviously, it was not God, but Joseph’s brothers, who sold him into Egypt. But by aligning himself consistently with God’s will against forces of sin and opposition, Joseph became a vehicle for God to work His purposes, to the point where Joseph saw no need to frame his adversity in anything but a positive and faith-promoting way. The healing balm of the atonement of Jesus Christ can thus turn misfortunes into blessings for ourselves and those around us. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven.” 

If we follow the reasoning where it goes, then the idea that “God made me this way,” that God personally flips every single switch that shapes our experience of mortality, is absurd. It’s bad theology, and it’s spiritually harmful. When considered in the proper light, we should be cautious to support the implications of these assertions—or pretend like they are a wise basis for future teaching or policy.  

3. Am I current in my understanding of the issues?

Again in the discussion of LGBT+ issues, it is important to operate with current understanding. In past decades, debates used to center on questions of “nature versus nurture,” and opponents of the Church’s teachings on gender and sexuality would point to the “unchosen” nature of same-sex attraction as an indicator that the Church’s teachings were in some way unfair.

The idea that attractions are “unchosen” is generally considered to be true, but as Brandon Ambrosino wrote for the BBC, for some people, this is a question that resists easy answers. Vera Whisman’s analysis complicates things:

The claim that homosexuality is legitimate because it is not chosen is androcentric, treating a common male experience as generically human. Apparently, the vast majority of gay men in the U.S. do understand their homosexuality as an orientation they did not choose or create.  But lesbian identities span a continuum, from a model of lesbian identity as a conscious political choice to a determinist model like that of most gay men. The “born that way” stance not only “lets the other side set the terms of the debate” in heterosexist terms, but [also denies] “the complexities of the lesbian world.”

The same Kaufmann study also confirms a more nuanced picture of identity. Rather than universally an “unchosen” experience that is perceived in the same way by all who identify as LGBT+, he points out:  

When we look at homosexual behavior, we find that it has grown much less rapidly than LGBT+ identification. Men and women under 30 who reported a sexual partner in the last five years dropped from around 96% exclusively heterosexual in the 1990s to 92% exclusively heterosexual in 2021. Whereas in 2008, attitudes and behavior were similar, by 2021, LGBT+ identification was running at twice the rate of LGBT+ sexual behavior.

Why the discrepancy between LGBT+ identification and behavior? With the rise of intersectionality as a guide to people’s credibility and the value of their voices, people increasingly identify with marginalized groups as a response to social incentives, whether their actual experience corresponds to that of the marginalized group or not. Perhaps these identities are not directly and obviously chosen in a straightforward and conscious way; for many or even most people, they are definitely strongly influenced by the choices of the individual and the people (and culture) around them. That’s because the way we think about identity is naturally shaped by whom we choose to associate with and how. At any rate, the claim that individual choice never has any bearing on sexual identity and behavior no longer has scientific backing if it ever did. 

Another claim that was prominent in past debates and is now questioned in the present is the idea that sexual orientation is fixed and never changes. This is another example of the importance of keeping current on what are basic, broadly-acknowledged realities of people’s experiences of gender and sexuality. University of Utah professor Lisa Diamond’s research on sexual fluidity is not new; her 2016 study opened with a clear explanation of her research:

Sexual fluidity has been defined as a capacity for situation-dependent flexibility in sexual responsiveness, which allows individuals to experience changes in same-sex or other-sex desire across both short-term and long-term time periods. I review recent evidence for sexual fluidity and consider the extent of gender differences in sexual fluidity by examining the prevalence of three phenomena: nonexclusive (bisexual) patterns of attraction, longitudinal change in sexual attractions, and inconsistencies among sexual attraction, behavior, and identity.

Harvard University’s Sabra L. Katz-Wise affirms this observable reality: “changes in sexual orientation are a common thread in many people’s lives. People may experience changes in who they are attracted to, who they have sex with, and which labels they use to describe their sexual orientation.” 

Acceptance of people’s misery-inducing identity choices does not lessen their misery.

While this truth has been wholly ignored in popular culture depictions of sexual minorities, this has actually been understood in academia for decades. For instance, contrary to the commonly-held view that orientations are not chosen, queer theorists have long argued that sexual orientation is socially constructed and, therefore, can be deconstructed and reconstructed in any number of ways through social engineering (particularly among the young). We witnessed the divide over these views at a recent pride event in Vermont, where Stonewall-era gay activist Fred Sargeant was assaulted for holding a sign that said: “GAY NOT QUEER.” But queer theory aside—given the reality of sexual fluidity, on what grounds would anyone assert that there is no action that anyone could possibly undertake, no life experiences that could happen to someone, that would ever affect their sexual orientation in any way? When we claim sexual orientation never changes in any way, on what grounds do we make that claim?

Given the amount of research and personal counsel from knowledgeable people that inform the deliberations of the governing councils of the Church, we would do well to examine the depth and currency of our own understanding before undertaking to counsel them, especially on issues that seem simple but are in fact very complex. Chances are that they have considered vastly more information and gamed out vastly more implications for various courses of action than they are often given credit for. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency:

As the least of those who have been sustained by you to witness the guidance of this Church firsthand, I say with all the fervor of my soul that never in my personal or professional life have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us, who look so deeply into the old, stay so open to the new, and weigh so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully everything in between. I testify that the grasp this body of men and women have of moral and societal issues exceeds that of any think tank or brain trust of comparable endeavor of which I know anywhere on the earth.

4. Am I aware of problems in my own methodology?

Many suggestions to church leadership come from a fatally-flawed assumption in historical criticism. It is the idea that if we can look at a doctrine or policy and demonstrate that it has undergone a long process of evolution that includes some amount of cultural factors, then we cannot firmly state that the doctrine or policy is God’s mind and will for the Church in the present moment.

An interesting refutation of this assumption is found in the baptism of Christ, which He explicitly understood to be in fulfillment of the law. Baptism for repentance as performed by John was not required in the Law of Moses, and modern attempts to trace it to a Mosaic precedent result in imaginative reconstructions of the evolution of the practice. Yet regardless of how baptism emerged over time to become a well-known practice in the time of John, it was understood by believers from the time of Christ’s ministry as being firmly binding upon all of humanity for salvation. Even then, as we read in the Book of Mormon, a practice like baptism can carry some amount of ambiguity in how it is implemented, and until it is settled with finality by the Lord, as was baptism in 3 Nephi 11, it can still serve the valuable function of pointing toward a future ideal.

Whether a doctrine or policy has emerged through a process of evolution and refinement over time is a question that employs one epistemology, typically academic research. Whether a doctrine or policy has now developed to fruition and is God’s mind and will in the present day requires a different epistemology that invariably includes revelation.

Questions around the evolution of doctrines and practices are like catnip to theologians because they offer a comforting illusion that God’s will in the present is still somehow unknown, subject to those same forces of evolution, and tantalizingly, always surely (one day) destined to end up exactly where the theologians’ own biases and preferences lay. God’s mind and will are imagined to be a perpetual jump ball available to the tallest intellect.

One fatal flaw in the progressive approach to questions of faith is the fallacy of composition: the idea that if something is true of a subset, then it can be said of the whole group. It is undeniably true that in our faith, there are open questions. And our understanding of important concepts is still evolving. We have made adjustments—even hard adjustments—in the past, and we will no doubt continue doing so in the future. But the fact that some things are evolving does not mean that everything is. The fact that some things need clarification does not mean that other things are not crystal clear and fully settled. When consistent teaching points to settled doctrine, the responsible and sustaining course of action is to make the best possible case for the Church’s position. The promise of continuing revelation does not mean we can afford to delay making our stand and staking our faith on what is known and what has been revealed. We must choose this day, and every day, whom we will serve. We must decide daily whether we will either continue to halt between two opinions or take up the cross, shame and all.

5. It is easy to give people what they want. It is harder to give people what they need.

Anyone can play the game of finding theological loopholes that exempt people from unpopular doctrines or even render those doctrines moot. This is surely a great way to get yourself placed on faculty at a prestigious university or a fawning write-up in prominent national media.

To be fair, sometimes, these doctrines are a source of legitimate pain, especially when we feel we do not currently measure up to the ideals of our doctrines in noticeable ways. And this search for loopholes can be motivated by otherwise genuine attempts at kindness or emotional pain relief. But however nice this might initially seem or feel, does such an effort ultimately help people? 

If the full doctrine of Christ represents timeless truths and the roadmap to exaltation, we are not doing anyone any favors by misleading them into thinking these doctrines are soon to be renounced. While this may be motivated by a sincere desire to decrease pain, the real effect is only to prolong it. Therefore, these efforts would be better spent gaining a deeper understanding and testimony of these doctrines and then ministering to those having difficulty with them by encouraging them to live in greater accord with these truths. Healthy spiritual development is a process of increasing our ability to live well in reality.

Though hopefully done in love and in the context of a relationship where there is already trust and credibility, facilitating the spiritual development of others may entail a willingness to speak some hard truths. It means we encourage people to accommodate and align their views to doctrine to the greatest extent possible, rather than the other way around. While less popular and less welcome in society today, this is nonetheless practicing a higher love where we place our confidence in the power of Christ to lead people to greater spiritual development, with all of its attendant emotional benefits. We give people what they need, not necessarily what they want.

What we hope for are discussions of doctrine and policy that are firmly grounded in reality. Again, it is normal to have a wish list of things we would like to see happen or stop happening in the Church and other organizations. But we would hope for all church members to understand that fixating on our mental models of an imaginary future is a miserable way to live a life of faith. The happiest and most fulfilled disciples of Christ are living a very present-oriented faith, basking in the peace that comes from sustaining God’s servants and being fully engaged in the life-long work of surrendering to God’s perceptions and priorities, moment by moment.

 

About the authors

Dan Ellsworth

Dan Ellsworth is a consultant in Charlottesville, VA, and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.

Jeff Bennion

Jeff Bennion is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He co-founded North Star International in 2007, and has written for several publications on the topics of sexuality, faith, and marriage.
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