One of my interests in the past few years is seeing Mormonism (and Christianity generally) in a whole new light, and I have started a new Facebook group that will be discussing how this religion might be reenvisioned (re-visioned).
I think we are currently seeing a seismic societal shift in the way people are approaching religion, with dwindling numbers of those participating in Christian denominations in the U.S., and a rising number of “nones” or perhaps “spiritual but not religious.” See the recent Pew update, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” and the chart at the right. It’s about a 10-12% swing in both directions over the past decade, which is a massive change. If this trend continues, in just a decade or two there may be a similar number of Christians and “nones” in this country.
The study also notes that Millennials (born between 1981-96), in particular, have already swung far in this direction: “only half of Millennials (49%) describe themselves as Christians; four-in-ten are religious ‘nones,’ and one-in-ten Millennials identify with non-Christian faiths.” See this chart:
A Failing Narrative & Practice
But why? What is causing this tremendous change in religious participation? Some religious people might think that it is people simply dropping out of religion, turning their back on God, etc. But it does not seem like most are simply giving up on spirituality entirely. Many seem to be looking for a some form of spirituality, and are interested in the spiritual dimension and deeper questions about life, but they are growing increasingly tired of the institutional forms, the dogmatism, the pseudoscience, the patriarchal authoritarianism that is present in many conventional/traditional religions. They are perhaps not actually being connected to Spirit there, which should be the aim of all genuine spirituality. This is happening in Mormonism too. My reasons for leaving the LDS Church were wrapped up in these issues (I was born in 1981, and so I am an “old” Millennial).
Scholars in the LDS Church have begun to recognize that the “story” of Mormonism needs to change radically. Richard Bushman notably said this a few years ago:
I think that for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds and that’s what it is trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change.-Richard L. Bushman, fireside meeting, 12 June 2016
And not only the story, but the practice, needs to change. Religion must not solely be a matter for the intellectual mind, but must include the heart, a transformation of the heart, and a transformation of consciousness. As the word often translated as “repentance” in the New Testament, the Greek metanoia, may also refer to a “change of mind,” or “going beyond mind.” We do not need to merely fill the mind with ideas, but change the mind at a fundamental level. Our way of thinking must radically change.
We have lost the mystical-contemplative dimension in much of Christianity, and that includes Mormonism too, that inward component which is what makes the Divine come alive in the hearts of people, burning with the fire of truth and light and love. It is that direct experiential encounter with the Spirit, direct communion in Love, personal experience with the Ultimate Reality, with God, it is these things which sustain faith in life, and lead to compassionate action in the world. We can try to convince the mind, but it is really the heart that must be converted, and this is deeply inward, a revelation of one’s own soul, one’s own consciousness, one’s deepest essence.
The Mystical Core
One essay that I continue to return to over and over again is by Benedictine monk and interfaith activist David Steindl-Rast, “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion,” in which he notes how religion begins in mysticism but often deteriorates when its institutions become hardened and lose that spiritual fire through time, and how that fire can be kindled again (a cycle that seems to repeat itself in history):
Religion in its diverse expressions is now filtered through historical influence (e.g., institutionalization) and tends to deteriorate. It can, however, be purified and renewed whenever a faithful heart recognizes, in spite of all distortions, the original light. Thus, the believer’s mysticism becomes one with the Founder’s. The heart of religion finds itself in the religion of the heart. The two are one.
(If you enjoy this writing and content, please consider giving a Gift. If every reader gave just $1, it would be sufficient for my family's needs. I am deeply grateful to you for your kindness and generosity. 🙏 —Bryce)-David Steindl-Rast, “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion”
The truth is often buried deeply in all religious traditions, including Mormonism and Christianity more generally, but it is buried so deep that many cannot see it anymore. Time and culture have changed so radically that the metaphors have lost their power to point our minds to the Divine as it really is, and so we are lost. Even noted atheist, neuroscientist, and author Sam Harris noted this reality:
It would take me many years to put this [mystical] experience into context. Until that moment, I had viewed organized religion as merely a monument to the ignorance and superstition of our ancestors. But I now knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and the other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds. I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.-Sam Harris, Waking Up
Sam Harris’s solution seems to be to do away with the religions, and use science to get to those psychological truths. But I disagree with that approach. The truths are still there in the rubble of the religions, and it seems what we need to do is uncover them, restore them, renew them, bring them into the light, and we can use science to help us do so, to rediscover genuine spirituality/mysticism. We can find that original light again. It won’t be a different light than what the founders of the religions found, but the very same light, interpreted in new ways, according to our modern understanding and culture. This seems to be David Steindl-Rast’s idea as well. People inevitably arise in every tradition or culture, often mystics, that help to unveil that light once again:
These represent the great men and women who reformed and renewed religious tradition from within. In one way or another, this is our task, too. Every religion has a mystical core. The challenge is to find access to it and to live in its power. In this sense, every generation of believers is challenged anew to make its religion truly religious.-David Steindl-Rast, “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion”
Every religion has a mystical core. Every one, including Mormonism. It started with a profound mystical experience which happened for a young boy in a grove of trees in early 1820 in Palmyra, New York. Joseph Smith was lost in the rubble, but found that mystical access to the light, and lived in its power. Unfortunately sometimes this means a schism from the old religions and the formation of new ones, as it did in Mormonism, which schismed from the Protestant tradition of Joseph’s time.
The Challenge with Reformation
Mystics are often seen as a problem to the systems of institutional religion, and there can be substantial friction between them. But as Steindl-Rast noted, the mystics show their authenticity in how they approach reforming religion:
Those who are closest to the life that created the structures will have the greatest respect for them; they will also be the first ones, however, to demand that structures that no longer support but encumber life must be changed. Those closest to the mystical core of religion will often be uncomfortable agitators within the system. How genuine they are will show itself by their compassionate understanding for those whom they must oppose; after all, mystics come from a realm where “we” and “they” are one.”-David Steindl-Rast, “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion”
So many that fall away from organized religions seem to become very bitter, angry, disillusioned, vengeful, hateful, polemical, and may only want to burn the whole thing down. I was that way for a time, and I see it often in former Mormons. It may be a necessary step along our path, a natural response to discovering that the things we thought were literal truths are anything but literally as they were said to be. We may feel like we’ve been deceived, tricked, lied to, taken advantage of, etc. The edifice of literalism, and the belief that our religion had the absolute “Truth,” comes crashing down, and this can leave us feeling deeply wounded, hurt, broken, and fearful. This can manifest itself as a harsh backlash of reactivity against our former tradition. But there is a danger in this approach.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.-Martin Luther King, Jr., also said in similar
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Even one of the most vocal excommunicated critics of the LDS Church, John Dehlin, in recent days has perhaps realized the futility of “fighting” the tradition, and that there may be a better way forward:
I feel like I’ve been at war for 15 years. I’m tired of fighting. I feel like it’s time to drop the sword and focus on healing and growth. It’s time to build.-John Dehlin, Facebook, 5 November 2019
Richard Rohr has said:
The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Oppositional energy only creates more of the same.-Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, https://cac.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/CP-3_Zealots-and-Pharisees.pdf
Disillusionment is not the end. There is a return journey, to real spirituality, a return to seeking deeply, and uncovering those truths buried deep in the rubble of religion, and experiencing the truth directly for one’s self. It may not be in the very same religion one left, but it may be in the general tradition and culture still. As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr often says, “if it’s true, it’s true everywhere,” and that means even in one’s former tradition. We can’t escape the truth, wherever it may be, because it is reality as it is. Truth will find us again, and again, and again.
Rohr has also noted how this “further journey” must include one’s past. If it doesn’t, it is perhaps not the further journey:
The language of the first half of life and the language of the second half of life are almost two different vocabularies, known only to those who have been in both of them. The advantage of those on the further journey is that they can still remember and respect the first language and task. They have transcended but also included all that went before. In fact, if you cannot include and integrate the wisdom of the first half of life, I doubt if you have moved to the second. Never throw out the baby with the bathwater. People who know how to creatively break the rules also know why the rules were there in the first place. They are not mere iconoclasts or rebels.—Richard Rohr, Falling Upward
As the poet T. S. Eliot put it so eloquently:
We shall not cease from exploration-T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
We can’t completely abandon previous stages of growth in our spiritual journey. They were there for a reason. The key is perhaps seeing them as what they were, preparatory, and as perhaps casting spiritual truths in literal forms in order to help incline our minds in a particular direction. What was that direction? What were the literal forms trying to tell us? Is there a deeper spiritual reality they were pointing to, a deeper interpretation? As Rohr notes:
You have to learn from each stage, and yet you can’t completely throw out previous stages, as most people unfortunately do. In fact, a fully mature person appropriately draws upon all earlier stages. ‘Transcend and include’ is Ken Wilber’s clever aphorism here. Most people immensely overreact against their earlier stages of development, and earlier stages of history, instead of still honoring them and making use of them.—Richard Rohr, adapted from The Dean’s Address, Living School Symposium, August 2013
Digging Deeply for the Truth
And so the challenge becomes digging down deep into spirituality to find those kernels of truth, wherever they may be, even perhaps in one’s former tradition. It is unlikely that major religious traditions exist entirely on lies and falsehoods. Their success through time mean there is something real in them, something deeply inspiring, something “true.” Our task is to find it, as so many spiritual teachers have noted.
Retired bishop of the Episcopal Church, John Shelby Spong, recently said this, even in reference to Mormonism:
It doesn’t matter where you begin, if you go deep enough you come to a beautiful understanding… but it may not be anything like what your previous history looked like… The problem with religion is that people don’t go deeply enough in their own tradition. So I would say, take the Book of Mormon… and go as deep as you want to in it, and when you come out on the other side you are going to look and see Mormonism in a very different way from where you saw it before you started.-John Shelby Spong, podcast with Bill Reel
The problem is that we usually don’t go deeply enough. We usually stay on the surface of things, never going deep, and when we don’t go deep we don’t get to the Spirit in things, the fire that exists in the core, in the center, in the heart. The Spirit is very deep, indeed. Another spiritual luminary of our times Eckhart Tolle says a similar thing:
If you go deep enough into your religion, then you all get to the same place. It’s a question of going deeper… The important thing is that religion doesn’t become an ideology… The moment you say ‘Only my belief or our belief is true,’ and you deny other people’s beliefs, then you’ve adopted an ideology, and then religion becomes a closed door.-Eckhart Tolle
Sometimes when we leave a religion, we search for the truth elsewhere, as if there must be a religion out there somewhere that has “the truth.” One of them must have it, right? I suggest, no. No religion has “the truth.” Not one. That is not what they are for. They are not teaching one single fixed absolute communicable truth, even if they think or say they do. They are all pointing, all pointers, teaching through metaphors, symbols, allegory. They are, at best, pointing at the truth, but are not themselves the truth, they are not reality as it is. Finding that truth often requires an inward journey, often one that is triggered by great suffering and/or great love, as Rohr says.
Even some leaders in the LDS Church have recognized just how little we actually know, and that the truth remains uncontained, ungrasped, uncornered:
[T]here is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers — that we in fact have a corner on truth. For we do not.—Hugh B. Brown, First Presidency of the LDS Church
And so we dig, and dig, and dig, searching for the truth. And as Richard Rohr also says, “If you look deep enough, every bush burns.” Every one.
Digging in Mormonism
Much of my writing and journey the last couple of years has been digging deeply in Mormonism, and Christianity generally, informed by many other spiritual traditions and my own personal mystical experiences, to uncover the truths that hidden deeply in this rubble. I have even been writing a series of articles about the truths that I’ve been exploring deep in Mormonism, and reconstructing a picture that makes more sense to me, finding those kernels of truth, the pointers to truth, the mystical core within the tradition:
- God the Father
- Holy Ghost
- First Vision
- Joseph Smith
- Book of Mormon
- Second Coming (see also here and here)
- Priesthood (yet to be written, but see here and here)
- Resurrection (yet to be written, but see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here)
- Purpose of Life
Some may ask, why Mormonism? Why not reconstruct Christianity generally? While many of my thoughts and reconstructions about Mormonism may apply more generally to Christianity, the Christian tradition as a whole is far too large and complex to address all its particularities. So I often focus my view to the tradition within Christianity that I am most familiar with, and which had its own mystical outpouring only two hundred years ago. As so many of the wise spiritual teachers I’ve noted above have said, the truth can be found in every tradition, if we look deeply enough, and that includes Mormonism. And so I often come at it from this direction.
I have also experienced things, personally, which have shown me the deep truth in Mormonism, and in all the world’s spiritual traditions. I have seen it, experienced it, and I cannot unsee it. The truth is there, if we look for it. That mystical fire burns deeply in the core of the tradition, underneath the cooled and solidified rigidity of the rocks on the surface. As David Steindl-Rast has said, “We have to push through this crust and go to the fire that’s within it.”
But what about Joseph?
Some may say, but Joseph Smith was a con man, a fraud, a charlatan, a pedophile, a philanderer, a liar, a trickster, a sexual deviant, etc., etc. How could he have been a genuine mystic, an enlightened teacher, an authentic spiritual guide? How could he have known anything true about God or the Divine?
This is perhaps one of the hardest things for many who are struggling with Mormonism, or who have left Mormonism, to come to terms with. Many want to abandon Joseph as anyone in whom the truth of God could have been revealed. They think there are too many things that he did which they see as unenlightened, or even depraved.
I just finished reading a great study by yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein called Holy Madness: Spirituality, Crazy-Wise Adepts, and Enlightenment. In it Feuerstein examines the crazy-wise gurus, holy fools, and many others throughout history who sometimes did outrageous things, taught wild ideas, and even participated in culturally immoral behavior, and yet they may have still had enlightened thoughts, inspiration, deep mystical intuitions, etc. In other words, no one is “black” or “white.”
Yes, even the most seemingly broken of people may be conduits through which Divine light shines. And there may be good biological, neurological, psychological reasons for that. I see Joseph in that regard. He was at times a very strange character, indeed, and behaved in ways that we may not think were good. And yet, he may still have had genuine insights into the Divine. I think he was often very sincere, and teaching the truth of God insofar as he was able, as he experienced it.
Richard Rohr sometimes says,
Every great person has tragic flaws.-Richard Rohr
Every one. No one is immune, or an exception. Not even Jesus, remarkably, which is something which I think Jesus recognized. I think he knew that his human nature was deeply flawed, broken, imperfect. When the young rich man called him “Good Master,” he replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good–except God alone” (Mark 10:18). It is human nature to be deeply flawed, even tragically flawed. Every one of us. Jesus is no exception. Rohr likewise notes:
Stories of men with tragic flaws, backtracking, blind spots, denials, and betrayals fill the Scriptures; in fact, they are the norm. Thick of Adam, Jacob and Esau, Moses, David, Solomon, Peter and Paul. Yet they were used by God, each in his own way part of the divine plan. I can’t think of a single biblical male who would make it through Rome’s canonization process today. Even Jesus never would have become ‘Saint Jesus’ because of his theological confusions and loophole-filled moral principles.-Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation, 360
Rohr also once gave examples of Martin Luther King Jr. who apparently had multiple adulterous affairs, and Thomas Merton who had a mistress, and some of the earlier Christian mystics who participated in the Crusades. Being enlightened, prophetic, or mystically gifted, does not make one perfect. Far from it. Everyone is deeply broken, and it is perhaps that very brokenness that is the crack that allows the Divine light to seep through in some people. But as Carl Jung observed,
The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.-Carl Jung
Anyone who has great spiritual insight or wisdom may be seen by the wider culture and their contemporaries as very dangerous, deluded, heretical, deeply flawed, immoral, mad, insane, etc. Jesus was not immune from this either. His own family and friends at times thought he was “mad” or “insane,” and some thought he was demon-possessed (Mark 3:21; John 10:20). And Paul too (Acts 26:24).
Joseph Smith himself likely recognized his flawed nature:
A prophet is a prophet only when acting as such.-Joseph Smith, paraphrase
We don’t have to deny the brokenness in such people, the tragic flaws. That is not the goal. But we do want to recognize the goodness in them. As one Buddhist teacher, Culadasa, recently said:
Look for the goodness in every person, every situation, every institution. It’s there. Your mind is predisposed to see the other. We’re not denying that the other exists, but try to see the goodness. It’s easy to see the goodness in the people that you love and that are good to you. Try to see the Goodness in the people that are a problem in your life. They are not just a problem to you. They are also someone who, in their own way, is loveable, and loved as a result. In the situations you find yourself in, there may be a lot of painful ramifications for you personally. But there is still some goodness that comes from this. Look for the goodness in the world.-Culadasa
Ironically, Culadasa was recently discovered in a sex scandal of his own. But does that invalidate everything he ever taught, all the good that he ever did? I don’t think so. We are often quick to judge others, when we may be just as broken as they. Jesus once gave this counsel,
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.-Matthew 7:5
Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone…-John 8:7
In fact, the darkness we see in others may be a reflection of the darkness in our own self, something which is very hard for us to hear.
So, yes, let’s recognize and acknowledge that Joseph was a deeply flawed individual, tragically broken, and even did some awful things, and perhaps we can recognize that in ourself as well. Then we may move forward towards, what was he saying? What was his mystical insight, and is there any truth and goodness in it? I think there is. But much of it needs radical reinterpretation and reconstruction.
A New Facebook Group
I think there are many others out there that are interested in reconstructing Mormonism in this way. It is the further journey from deconstruction, to building a new constructive interpretation. We recognize that the official traditional narrative and practice is deeply flawed and broken, and so we are interested in new forms of seeing it in our modern world. This is for those people that perhaps not necessarily interested in preserving the institution of a particular denomination within Mormonism, such as the LDS Church, but they are still interested in the Mormon ideas, in Joseph’s mystical insight, in Mormon scriptures, and in digging very deeply into them to uncover the truth, casting them in new light, and in practicing a “Mormon” way, in a Mormon community, and a Mormon inner path towards Divine realization.
For these reasons I have made a new Facebook group, named simply “Reconstructing Mormonism’s Mystical Core,” for those interested in engaging in topics related to exploring and reconstructing the tradition from the bottom up, from the mystical ground, in peeling back the many layers of interpretation, in constructing new interpretations and translations, in digging deeply to uncover the “mystical core” in Joseph Smith’s insights, teachings, experiences, and Mormonism as a tradition in general. I should note that you don’t have to be a Mormon, or part of the Mormon tradition, to participate in this group, but I think you should be generally sympathetic to Mormonism and/or reconstructing Christianity.
I think the truth is here, buried deeply, and it can be uncovered still, through careful honest inquiry and especially through contemplative practice. My experience has shown me this is possible, even in a tradition that seems to some to have become quite fundamentalist in many respects, as Steindl-Rast notes:
One of the great surprises is that the fire of mysticism can melt even the rigor mortis of dogmatism, legalism, and ritualism. By the glance or the touch of those whose hearts are burning, doctrine, ethics, and ritual come aglow with the truth, goodness, and beauty of the original fire. The dead letter comes alive, breathing freedom.-David Steindl-Rast, “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion”
Join us and let’s melt the rigor mortis in Mormonism, and find the beauty of the original fire that burned so brightly that early spring morning in 1820, which shined freedom, life, love, joy, peace, and truth. 🔥