Why did you choose the domain churchistrue?
It’s a fair question. I sometimes regret taking the domain churchistrue and going by that userid. My site and my “ministry” had been in the works for several years previously, so I didn’t take it lightly, but I have been a bit surprised how it’s been perceived. Both by Exmo’s who assume I’m defending LDS absolute truth claims in the same way that FairMormon does or by TBM’s who get warm and fuzzy seeing the “churchistrue” phrase.
Many years ago I took a liking to the phrase “the church is true but the gospel isn’t”, taking a step further Eugene England’s counter to the phrase “the gospel is true but the church isn’t” when he said “the church is as true as the gospel”. My intent of this was that I have very little belief in many of the absolute truth claims which make up the gospel. Like Nephi, I might say “uh, I know God loves his children, but that’s about it.” But I do have great belief in the power of The Church to be a force for good in the world and in people’s lives. This was a very personal post for me and explains it the best. https://www.churchistrue.com/blog/mormonism-is-about-creating-george-baileys/ The Church is true is a very valid thing for me to say.
Then the question, why not use a different phrase. And maybe I should have. Blindly claiming “I know the church is true” and intending to mean that you know it’s God’s one, true, exclusive church in all the world with God-breathed scripture and doctrine and led by a prophet who is controlled by God like a puppet master, that is one of the problems in the church today. That is an unsustainable view, IMHO. I’d like to call attention to that not shy away from it. I’d like people to be faced with what that means and what it should mean. And I’d like to affect some change to the meaning of that. I highly doubt there will be a testimony meeting in the Mormon church from now until the end of time where “I know the church is true” is not uttered at least once. And that’s fine. I already said I love this church. I love the culture. I love the green jello. But let’s see if we can affect some change in what is meant when that is stated. I’d like for the meaning of that phrase to slowly shift to something more real and more sustainable.
Are you for real? Do you really believe what you say? Or is this sarcasm or parody?
I believe everything I write. I’ve produced hundreds of pages of material, either here on my blog or in facebook posts. Sometimes, I do it very thoughtfully and carefully, and the writing is a culmination of months or years of thought on the subject. Sometimes I knock it out quickly without as much thought. Writing is cathartic for me. And though my general viewpoints haven’t changed a lot since I started writing, I do work out the specifics in different ways, so my view on a given point might change a little. But, generally, everything I’ve written, I stand by. I sometimes like to stir things up on my facebook wall, to create interest, and have some fun. I like to tweak people on both sides, the Exmo side and the very conservative, literal side. But I try to keep this more playful and not malicious. I have respect for people across the spectrum on this.
Why are you hiding behind a pseudonym?
Of all the choices I’ve made in this journey, this is the one I waffle on most frequently. But I probably wouldn’t do it much differently, if I were to do it over again. Family is most important to me above anything. I wouldn’t sacrifice Isaac, if I were Abraham. I’d tell God I chose my son over him. I’d choose my wife and my kids over my blog any day of the week. I give more background on my relationship with my wife and how my faith crisis evolved and how it affects her in my page on my personal faith journey. When I finally found peace in my faith journey and went into faith reconstruction mode, like the pattern in the Book of Mormon of Lehi and Alma and the sons of Mosiah, I desired to share it with others. But my wife was very concerned about how that would affect her and our children.
I’m confident my local leaders would be fine with my blog material. I preach this often, but I don’t think the church is on a witch hunt to drive out all uncorrelated voices. There have been a handful of excommunications the last few years. But a handful out of 15 million members is nothing. John Dehlin made this exact point in a podcast recently, listing Tyler Glenn and several other voices which easily could be considered “anti-Mormon”, which none have faced disciplinary council.
I have a multi-step plan to “out” myself. I’m opening up with certain individuals and certain venues. At some point, I’ll fully integrate with my private identity. Originally, I was hoping I could get my kids on missions or at least close to mission age before I do this. But I see there is a need now, and I want to be part of the solution.
I hope those that say things like “you’re a coward for hiding behind a pseudonym” can be a little more generous. If anyone wants to meet for lunch or an afternoon of golf and talk more about why I do anything I do, I’m up for it as long as you promise to respect my privacy.
What’s the big deal with your kids? It’s wrong to lie to them and hide your true beliefs.
I’m not sure where I heard this, maybe Sam Brown. But he said something like “I earned my faith crisis.” Then he talked about how when you come by faith crisis by reading dozens of books and thousands of pages of articles and forum posts over many years, then by the time your faith crisis hits, your capability for nuanced understanding of the same ideas has increased, and you have what you need to process the faith crisis in an emotionally secure way. In Fowler’s Stages of Faith, the transition from 3 to 4 to 5 come later in life. My youngest is still in a stage 2 time period. Breaking out of stage 3 doesn’t usually come until college age. And stage 5 typically takes many years to attain. Most religions don’t have dominant narratives that break so easily with something as simple as the CES Letter. So my theory is that our church is facing a much bigger challenge to move people through these stages, and the result is a lot more pain and angst, and we are seeing that empirically. I think ideally, it would be good to get kids through mission age in stage 3 and then face all the faith crisis stuff in their young adulthood. My oldest three are on that path, and I think from a total emotional, mental, spiritual health standpoint, it’s the most ideal. I’m really concerned with how to help a teenager navigate that when he’s in a world full of stage 3 Mormons everywhere they go whether it be church, school, their sports teams, their friends, their crushes, everyone. I am trying to teach and model nuance, and some may criticize me for lying to my kids or perpetuating wrong thinking patterns, but if anything I’m worried I’m going too fast for them. And they will be the ones to pay the price emotionally and spiritually. This is something I’m very concerned about.
Why aren’t you more open, acknowledging the pseudonym?
A couple reasons. 1) From the beginning, I created some enemies. People that are high profile always attract these types. I’m not super high profile or super interesting, but I have attracted people that feel very threatened by what I’m doing and want to “expose” me. So, I’m not trying really hard to conceal it, but I haven’t been direct about it, in order to lengthen that time period where people aren’t motivated to become amateur sleuths and stalk me out in real life. 2) Facebook policy allows for author pseudonym accounts, but the application of that is inconsistent. I’m choosing not to address it there.
What is your current relationship with the church?
I love the church. I am active LDS with temple recommend. I attend church all three hours every week–most weeks :). I have a calling. I’ve opted out of high profile, leadership callings starting about ten years ago, when my faith crisis started. I do my home teaching. I hold family home evening. I teach and model to my kids to be good LDS. My oldest kids have served missions and attend BYU. My wife has a teaching calling and has gained some local notoriety as a speaker. I like to read and write. She’s inspirational and good at speaking. We collaborate together on what she teaches. I’m an 8th generation Mormon and that heritage is very important to me.
It’s fine if you believe what you do, but why are you trying to force it on others?
I feel called to the work of publicizing my perspective to help those LDS with doubts find a way to reconstruct faith after faith crisis. I am not aimed at changing church leadership. I’m not addressing TBM’s who are comfortable with literal belief. I’m very much focused on a small niche of those who already are aware of the historical issues and are trying to piece it back together.
What are you trying to accomplish?
My goal is to promote a nuanced perspective of Mormonism, something people have called “New Mormonism” and make an impact on the LDS apologetics world to move it more into this style. I have heard this called Neo-Apologetics. This is about creating an intellectually sound case for Mormonism that doesn’t rely on Book of Mormon historicity or literal foundational truth claims. It’s about defending the validity of Mormonism by the fruits of the lived experience not about defending the Book of Abraham or polygamy or Lamanite DNA. I want to produce a body of work that when someone reads the CES Letter and undergoes faith crisis, they can have a clear model of how to reconstruct faith.
Who are your role models? Who have you learned the most from in this journey?
The Mormon voices in this space that I have learned the most from and am trying to model are: Richard Bushman, Greg Prince, Adam Miller, Patrick Mason, Grant Hardy, Sam Brown, Terryl Givens. A new voice I like in that same category is Jack Naneek. The Thoughtful Faith group led by Dan Wootherspoon and Jeralee Renshaw is great. I love Bill Reel and I am hoping and praying he can remain positive and stay in the church, but I honor his journey and praise him for the work he does. I like the work produced by Maxwell Institute. Blair Hodges’ podcast is fantastic. Voices outside of Mormonism I have learned from are the Liberal Christian scholars like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Peter Enns. Richard Rohr is another, though he emphasizes the spiritual aspect and I am more interested in the religious aspect.
Whose side are you on?
I get a lot of criticism from both sides. Many Exmormons can’t stand my position that the church is good and that people should stay in it. Many conservative and literal Mormons think my nuanced views will destroy the church. But in the end, if I had to pick a side Stephen Smoot vs Jeremy Runnels. I would take Stephen every time. I would side with Dan Peterson over John Dehlin. I don’t like the harsh tone I see a lot from the Mormon side of these internet arguments. Ten years ago, I was working out my faith crisis, and I was posting online in a critical way, and I was the one getting run over by Mormon Apologists online. It damaged me and made my faith crisis more difficult. I still get in scrapes with the apologists on historicity and literal issues, but ultimately, I am a Mormon. I make covenants to build up the Kingdom of God, and I am doing that the way I believe is right. I love this church, and I want to help it be safer to those that feel marginalized. I want to help show the intellectual issues can be resolved. But in the end, I am hoping people will stay Mormon.
Joseph lied. The Church is lying to people now. How can you support it?
I don’t think it’s that simple. I think mistakes have been made for us to get in the situation we’re in, but I believe Joseph was inspired, and the brethren who lead the Church today are doing the best they can. I think they have a very difficult job of preserving the good the Church provides to so many people while moving it in a direction of openness about church history and scripture and forging new narratives to accommodate that.
The Church is hurting people. How can you support it?
I think the Church is a huge net positive in my life, in the life of my loved ones, in the life of the majority of its members, and in the world at large. I think some people are harmed by certain church doctrines and policies. I don’t look at the Church as some exterior entity with its own goals and motivations controlled by a bunch of old men in Salt Lake. I look at the Church as you and me and all of us together. If something’s not right, let’s all work together to fix it. But if I had a gay son, I might counsel him to leave the Church. In fact, I might leave with him. I don’t know. There are some tough issues right now, and I don’t judge anyone for their decisions to stay or leave. I have optimism that we are moving in the right direction, and it will be safer for everyone as we do that work together.
What do you actually believe?
Belief is very important in our church in our culture. But I’d like to help shift that. In a religious setting, I believe faith is more important than belief.
Belief is not a choice. Humans exercise belief at a subconscious level that’s impossible to control. Faith can be defined purely and synonymously as belief. But another definition is one more of a loyalty or a trust. It can exist outside of belief. It’s what Alma is talking about with his experiment. Suspend belief for a moment in order to test a hypothesis. Notice the temple recommend questions use the word faith and testimony, not belief.
I am trying to create an intellectual case for the validity of Mormonism for a wide range of beliefs, as long as they exert faith in LDS doctrines and principles and sustain the brethren. That spectrum of belief can go all the way to a purely metaphorical view. I think someone with a completely naturalistic explanation for the world, even an atheist, could use my paradigm and preserve a faith in the church.
I personally believe in God. I say on my bad days I doubt he exists. But on my good days, I’m absolutely sure he is there. My actual beliefs are somewhat fluid and hard to understand even for myself, but I think I could best describe myself as a Deist. Someone who believes in God but doesn’t believe God is actively intervening in the religions and lives of humans. But then I have those tender mercy moments, those little coincidences, where you feel your heart burn and the Holy Ghost tell you your Father in Heaven is there and he’s aware and he loves you. My brain wants to be an atheist, but my spirit is not letting it. “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
I believe in the scientific explanations for evolution and human dispersement. I believe in the Old Testament accounts as metaphorical but not historical. I believe in Jesus Christ. I don’t know about all the historicity issues. I’m satisfied saying, I either believe in a literal, resurrected historical Jesus, or I believe that Mormon doctrine of Christ is a perfect expression of what would happen were God to represent himself on Earth.
I don’t believe scripture is God breathed instruction to man. I don’t believe the Book of Mormon is historical, but I love that book of scripture. I believe in the transformative power of the Book of Mormon and Bible for people to come unto Christ and guide their lives. I don’t know how much of the restoration is from God and how much is from man. I believe religion and scripture and prophets and priesthood authority is best understood not as something that God delivers to man in an infallible way with absolute doctrine that is knowable and certain, but something that man does as a way to approach God and work to together to live according to our view of his will. I believe the LDS Church is a beautiful place to seek and find God, worship within the Body of Christ, serve and be served in a faith community. God is working in this church. I believe a faith filled life, seeking the will of God, and living the Christ centered LDS life is an abundant and fulfilling life. The best one that I know. The Church is true.
What are your future plans?
I have largely addressed the topics I wanted to address. I’ve written hundreds of pages of material on my blog and website. I am working on consolidating and organizing it better and want to publish it in book format. I have a working title: LDS Faith and Reconstruction. I have thought about wanting to be part of building a community for people in this position. I approached John Dehlin about purchasing or managing his domain StayLDS, as I think it’s a perfect place for what I want to accomplish, and it started out with good intentions, but kind of died. I’m not sure I have the time or motivation to do that kind of project justice, but that’s the direction I’d like to head. The community would be for those who are struggling with faith and how to make sense of it but are committed to the Church. A community like that has a tendency to grow more and more negative over time, because that’s the most common trajectory for people. But this would be different in the sense that severely negative opinions of the Church would not be tolerated and a positive approach would be modeled and promoted.