Richard L. Bushman, a leading scholar of Mormonism and foremost biographer of its founder Joseph Smith, said the following during a meeting on June 12, 2016:
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.
I think these words will echo for many decades to come, as Mormonism comes to grips with its history, theology, and scriptures in the light of new modern understandings and shifts in the way people are approaching spirituality. Many things about its traditional narrative just don’t ring “true” to many people anymore. I will begin to offer a radical reconstruction of the Mormon narrative, what I think may be a better interpretation of the revelation in our modern day, which also applies in many ways to Christianity in general.
Mormonism and the Nature of Religion
As you probably know, I’m a former Mormon, but I remain friendly towards Mormons and my former faith. Some people become bitter towards their former faith when they transition away from it, for understandable reasons, but I don’t think this is inevitable or necessary. For a time I passed through a period of severe disillusionment as many do when they have a faith crisis and transition. I couldn’t understand how and why this religion on which I had built my entire worldview could possibly be wrong about anything. For my whole life I had felt it was so right, until it wasn’t, at least for me. My worldview shattered, and I was left to sort through the pieces to try to find truth again.
As I passed through a “dark night of the soul” and came out the other side, I realized that no religion is absolutely right or true. You could say that I had a sudden clarity, perhaps similar to Joseph Smith’s in his First Vision when he realized that none of the religious denominations were “true,” but were “all wrong,” quoting from Matthew 15:8-9 and Isaiah 29:13, that they draw near to God with their lips, but their hearts remain far away. This is actually seems to be a common insight that many mystics seem to have upon awakening to Truth, in all periods of history, that ultimate Truth can’t be encapsulated within any words or doctrines of any religious system, but is found only within the direct personal heart-felt experience of God.
We might then ask, “What are all the words, doctrines, scriptures, theologies, narratives for? If they don’t communicate the Truth as it is, then what good are they?” It seems to me that originally the mystics’ words are their interpretations of their mystical experiences of God, interpretations which are conditioned by their particular culture, education, knowledge, religious environment, and personal experiences. They are the ways the mystics have tried to paradoxically communicate something of their very ineffable and indescribable experiences to others, through language, to try to give a hint or glimpse of what they experienced of the overwhelming joy and love of the Divine so as to bring others to this life-changing experience as well. But just as one cannot describe the experience of the color red in words, neither can the mystics fully describe their experience of God. It’s ultimately beyond all language. This is why all the religions are ultimately not “true,” in the sense that they are not able to communicate (with their “lips”) what God is, as God is. It is inexpressible, ineffable. That Truth can only come through direct first-hand experience within a person, an intuitive “knowledge” born of personal experience.
That doesn’t mean the religions are useless or without merit. The mystics’ descriptions of their experiences and teachings often get formulated and formalized into doctrines and beliefs, scriptures and theologies, and for a time these can help guide people towards that same ineffable experience of union with the Divine. They are often effective means of reorienting people towards God, of giving them a glimpse of what God is like, of being signposts along “the way” of traversing the apparent separation or gap between humanity and God, of helping to travel that road of ascension, particularly in a supportive community with other like-minded people. Religion often gives people opportunities to transcend their egos in loving participation and service and giving of one’s self through compassionate activities, and in such activities the Divine may be experienced as a very real Presence.
But gradually the effectiveness and meaningful force of those religious teachings can lose power. The symbols may begin to fail. The world changes, culture shifts, discoveries are made, and those teachings no longer serve their purpose in pointing the way back to God, to Truth, and knowing God directly. The teachings can themselves often become a kind of idol, worshiped as the unchangeable literal word of God, no matter how incongruent they may become to present understandings of nature, reality, and the world. This can lead to fundamentalism, or a literal belief in scripture and doctrine that does not lead towards God but away from God, away from Truth and Love.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, has written eloquently about this general pattern as it appears throughout religious history:
The beginnings of the great religions were like the eruptions of a volcano. There was fire, there was heat, there was light: the light of mystical insight, freshly spelled out in a new teaching; the best of hearts aglow with commitment to a sharing community; and celebration, as fiery as new wine.
The light of doctrine, the glow of ethical commitment, and the fire of ritual celebration were expressions that gushed forth red hot from the depths of mystical consciousness. But, as that stream of lava flowed down the sides of the mountain, it began to cool off. The farther it got from its origins, the less it looked like fire; it turned into rock. Dogmatism, moralism, ritualism: all are layers of ash deposits and volcanic rock that separate us from the fiery magma deep down below.
But there are fissures and clefts in the igneous rock of the old lava flows; there are hot springs, fumaroles, and geysers; there are even occasional earthquakes and minor eruptions. 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.
I think this may be what has happened to Mormon doctrines and theology. In its beginning, the mystical fire of Joseph Smith’s experiences were deeply inspiring to people, his descriptions and teachings of God had the hallmarks of one who was very much in-tune with the Divine, speaking the words of God. His interpretations and symbols were deeply moving to many, helping bring many into the mystical Divine Presence themselves, and this ushered in a vibrant new American Christian religion in the early 19th century. Yet in our modern global scientific secular society many are finding that his words and understandings no longer hold the power that they once did, and even seem wholly incompatible with reality. The words have lost their mystical spirit, their ability to point the way back to that ineffable experience of the oneness of God. For some people this means leaving Mormonism to look for God elsewhere, and for some others, leaving a belief in God altogether.
Why I Care about Mormonism
But why do I care what Mormons think now that I’ve moved beyond the church? I care because I still think there is truth in it, as I think there is truth in all spiritual traditions. There is still fire in its mystical core. But I think many Mormons are struggling to find that truth. They seem to be getting little from the church’s own authorities or scholars, who seem to want to hold on tightly to literal interpretations, and so are feeling lost. I’ve talked with these people, particularly young people. They feel a great discrepancy between what Mormonism teaches, and the nature of the world, and this leads to a cognitive dissonance that is often too much for them to bear. They want Mormonism to be right, to contain truth, to point them towards God and Truth and Reality, but they can’t reconcile how this could be, given what they are learning about Mormon history, scripture, science, the nature of the world, other religions, etc. They are struggling to find God. They are looking for a new narrative, a new mythology that makes more sense to them, that accounts for reality and the human condition the way current teachings do not, and practices that help to bring them personally into the Presence of God.
There are many other Mormons who are just fine with their beliefs in the teachings of the church as they stand, and are not looking for any new interpretation. And that’s ok. If their understandings lead them to find goodness, love, beauty, and truth in their lives, a thriving and flourishing of life, and to be compassionate with all other people in the world, then I find no problem with that. Religion is serving its purpose. (For any like this who may be reading, I would recommend not reading any further, as it may only confuse you; you can return when you are confused.) But many others are searching, not finding, and are feeling despair. They want to know God themselves! It is for these that I want to offer some new understandings, new perspectives, new ideas, new interpretations, new pointers towards the Divine. It’s not the absolute Truth, since no interpretation is, but it may be a more helpful guide in the direction of Truth, and how we can experience that Truth for ourselves.
My goal is not to help people stay in the church, but neither is it to help them leave it. That is up to them. It’s not the institution necessarily that matters to me, but the people. It should always be about the people. I want to help people who may be struggling restructure their ideas of God, from someone who also has a Mormon background, who has himself deeply struggled to try to make sense of things, using Mormon scriptures and thoughts, while bringing in other ideas from the world of spirituality, science, and mysticism. I think we can arrive at a better place of understanding which will help us experience God.
Mysticism and the Return
When everything fell apart for me, I went searching, and I encountered contemplative practices, specifically meditation, a form of deep introspective prayer. I also found the related subject of mysticism, which I think is the source of all the religious and spiritual traditions. Mysticism is the direct personal experience of the Divine, the intimate encounter of Ultimate Reality, the union with the Absolute, the Real, the Truth. I began to have my own ineffable mystical experiences, and my eyes were opened to realities which I had never known before, which I had never even dreamed were possible. They were deeply transformative, completely restructuring my consciousness, my perceptions of reality, and my worldview.
I feel I can now look on Mormonism and see it quite differently. I feel I can understand more deeply the Mormon story in a whole new light. It is still a good light, but I think it needs a radically new interpretation to make better sense of it in the world today. As T. S. Eliot once wrote,
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
I feel like I’ve known Mormonism for the first time. Indeed, I feel I’ve known all of spirituality, religion, God, myself, life, love, and truth as if for the first time. For me it took stepping away from my faith in order to find it again. Or as the Sufi mystic Rumi put it:
Not until faithfulness turns into betrayal
and betrayal into faith
can any human being become part of truth.
There is a going out into the wilderness, and then a coming back or return, that seems like a recurrent pattern in human experience. It’s the monomyth, the Hero’s Journey, the plunging into darkness, into the abyss, and then finding the light again on the other side, returning to report. Some call this anatheism, the “God after God,” a rediscovery of God after one had abandoned one’s former conceptions, a deconstruction of all prior thoughts, concepts, ideas, structures, and a new reconstruction.
Those former ideas can become formidable obstacles for mystics, having become rigid and unwilling to change, to adapt, to grow, to surrender new life, new ways of thinking. Brother David Steindl-Rast also wrote how genuine mystics regard their “opposition”:
Those who are closest to the life that created the [religious] 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.
I don’t think Mormonism is false. I don’t think it is evil, or fraudulent. I don’t think Joseph Smith was a charlatan or a fake. I just think the original interpretations have become old, outdated, ineffective, and are in need of being heavily revised. It’s not that Joseph’s interpretations and insights were without truth, but they were framed in a very particular early 19th century American Protestant Christian understanding of the world and universe, including a folk magic worldview, which has now been superseded in many ways by new perspectives of the nature of reality, of science, of evolution, of the human mind and psychology, of religion, of history, and of scripture. The truths that once held power in Mormon theology must be reinterpreted in the light of these new understandings, reified into new symbols and explanations, new interpretations and new myths, which are infused once again with a mystical power to reorient us towards the Divine, to Reality, to Truth, guiding us towards our own personal experiences of union in God, of oneness (atonement), of nonduality. As Richard Bushman noted, Mormonism needs a new narrative.
New Interpretation is Hard
Unfortunately, many Mormons may be hesitant to offer new narratives of their own theology. I think this is because the church has become a strong authoritative top-down organization. Any new understanding of its teachings are thought to only come from the top of the hierarchy, from the president of the church and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Few members seem to offer their own unique ideas, particularly radical new ideas, to make sense of Mormon scriptures and symbols in a postmodern world. This can be seen as diluting or compromising the doctrine. New interpretations tend to stay very nearby traditional ones, not attempting to venture out too far into new roads. And, as is often the case with the mystics throughout history, those who do offer daring new ideas are often censured by the church for their unorthodoxy. Thus it seems that some of the most interesting new ideas that are offered come from outside Mormonism, not from within it.
I’m now on the outside looking in, and being on the outside I have encountered a whole new world of spirituality, particularly in the teachings of the Eastern religions and spiritual traditions. These have greatly expanded my perspectives of Mormon teachings. I believe that all spiritualities are the many ways that humans have tried to express and experience the deepest nature of what it means to be human, and the nature of the reality that we live in. Those approaches all differ in many ways, but I believe that deep within them they are all pointing towards similar metaphysical truths of our humanity, of the human condition, and of what is most Ultimate. Looking towards other spiritual traditions and doing much comparison between them we may come to understand Mormonism that much better, and grasp what it is Mormonism is trying to communicate in a whole new way.
It’s intriguing that this idea of a global metaphysical Truth is expressed within the Book of Mormon itself, a Truth which is taught throughout the world in different traditions, but this scripture is often not looked at this way within Mormonism. It is often used as an argument for the Book of Mormon (as an additional book of scripture to the Bible), but not for the validity of any other traditions or books. But a more open and liberal reading of it seems to clearly point to spiritual truth as it is expressed throughout all the world’s traditions, not just within Mormonism:
Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth?
Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another? Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also.
And I do this that I may prove unto many that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and that I speak forth my words according to mine own pleasure. And because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever.
Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written.
For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written.
For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it. (2 Nephi 29:7-12)
God “speaks” to all the nations of the Earth, to people everywhere, to mystics, prophets, sages, saints, shamans, and others throughout history and in every place. They each write the words that they are inspired to write from those deepest states of mystical consciousness. These writings are each their interpretation of that highest Truth, pointing towards it, but none of them fully grasping it in language. When we look at them as a whole, together, their words run together, from East and West, and we begin to see many patterns emerge.
Religious Discourse is Interpretive
I recently read religious scholar Karen Armstrong’s excellent book, The Case for God, in which she reviews the ideas of God from over 30,000 years ago to the present. One of the things that she notes is how God has been interpreted and reinterpreted, again and again throughout history by sages, scholars, and theologians. Some religions have based much of their religious practice upon the interpretation and reinterpretation of the religion itself, of its scriptures and ideas. As Armstrong notes:
In fact… until well into the modern period, Jews and Christians both insisted that it was neither possible nor desirable to read the Bible in this way [as a literal historical text], that it gives us no single, orthodox message and demands constant reinterpretation.
Judaism, in particular, established a tradition of continual reinterpretation:
In classical Judaism, revelation would never be something that had happened once and for all time, but an ongoing process that could never end, because there was always something fresh to be discovered… The Jews had discovered that religious discourse was essentially interpretive… Jewish exegesis would be called midrash, which derives from the verb darash, “to search,” “investigate,” “to go in pursuit of something” as yet undiscovered… midrash was [even] unconcerned about the original intention of the biblical author.
It is in that search, that investigation, that pursuit, that we are brought to discover the Truth for ourselves. No text is set in stone, no doctrine is final, no interpretation of scripture is ultimate. They must continually be reinterpreted, retranslated, reunderstood if they are to have meaning in our lives. And this does not come to a final end, but can become a spiritual practice in and of itself, which can lead us to awakening in God’s Presence.
Mormons might see similarities here to their Article of Faith on revelation:
We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.
Revelation is continual. It never stops, unless we stop searching and constructing new meaning from our experiences in the world.
Radical New Views
I feel that Mormonism (and Christianity more generally) needs a radical new construction of its narrative to bring fresh new insight into its beliefs and practices. I don’t think that small incremental steps of change will be enough to quench the thirst of those seeking God. A few years ago the Mormon scholar and apologist Daniel C. Peterson seemed to also note this need of radical new views:
…Mormonism is well equipped, in my judgment, with resources that Latter-day Saint thinkers haven’t even begun to employ — including teachings and doctrinal insights that are truly radical, in every meaning of that word including the etymological sense of getting down to the roots (Latin radix; plural radixes or radices).
Peterson quoted from Mormon historian B. H. Roberts:
I believe “Mormonism” affords opportunity for disciples of the second sort: nay, that its crying need is for such disciples. It calls for thoughtful disciples who will not be content with merely repeating some of the truths, but will develop the truths; and enlarge it by that development. Not half — not one-hundredth part — not a thousandth part of that which Joseph Smith revealed to the church has yet been unfolded, either to the church or to the world. The work of the expounder has scarcely begun. The Prophet planted by teaching the germ-truths of the great dispensation of the fulness of times. The watering and weeding is going on, and God is giving the increase, and will give it more abundantly in the future as more intelligent discipleship shall obtain. The disciples of “Mormonism,” growing discontented with the necessarily primitive methods which have hitherto prevailed in sustaining the doctrine, will yet take profounder and broader views of the great doctrines committed to the Church; and, departing from mere repetition, will cast them in new formulas; cooperating in the works of the Spirit, until they help to give to the truths received a more forceful expression and carry it beyond the earlier and cruder stages of development.
I was one of those who grew discontented with those primitive, earlier, and cruder stages of Mormon thought, which I think are still being taught today in the church to the dismay of many. It is this kind of radical reformulation of Mormonism and its narrative that I think is needed, and which I’d like to help offer, looking much more broadly throughout the world of spiritual traditions, and from my own personal mystical experiences, for meaning which will help bring us back to God. For some, my interpretations will be too radical, too far outside current Mormon thought to be taken seriously. But I think for others it may offer a direction of new inquiry and new possibilities that could be beneficial.
A New Mormon Theology
Over the next series of posts I will begin to offer some of my thoughts and interpretations about how certain Mormon doctrines, ideas, principles, scriptures, thoughts, beliefs, narratives, can be restructured, reformulated, reconstructed in radical new ways, ways that I think still honor Joseph Smith as the mystic and prophet that I think he was, but which helps bring the theology into a modern light, and return it to a more classically mystical orientation. And since I’m “outside” the church, and not an academic, I feel free to share my ideas without fears, without constraints, without artificial limits imposed by any position, calling, employ, or authority. I don’t have to try to play within the walls of any orthodoxy or ideology. I may express myself as I wish. As an amateur, my mind is not already full of complex theologies, intricate philosophies, and technical jargon that might not be able to connect with people. My language remains pretty simple.
Again, my interpretations will be as provisional as all other interpretations are, but I think they may help those seeking to make better connections between Mormonism and our perception of reality. I don’t claim to know everything, and I’m not a historian, I am simply sharing my ideas according to my experience. But it must be stressed that no ideas, no theologies, no doctrines, no teachings, no symbols, no concepts of God can be what God actually is. They will all fall short, including mine. They are not meant to replace the ineffable experience of God, but to lead us towards it, to help us live Life.
Religious teachings are meant to lead us into behaviors, things that we do, that reveal the Divine. And when that experience is finally had, we then understand why no words are adequate to describe God, no concept can contain God, no idea is sufficient. They are only meant to help guide our minds towards that ultimate Reality, which, at the end of the day, will require us to surrender all our mere ideas in the unutterable unthinkable transcendent experience itself.
Spirituality is ultimately not about thinking the right thoughts or having the correct beliefs about God in our minds, but rather entering into a practices, actions, behaviors, exercises, rituals, ways of being in the world, which open up the direct perception and experience of the Divine to us, and help us to realize our ever-present and eternal union with it. As will soon become clearer, I believe this union is with the totality of all things, all beings, all people, all of life, all of creation, all of the universe. We come to see it all, as Joseph Smith once put it, as “One Great Whole.”
Here are some topics that I will discuss in the next series of posts to begin to construct this radical new Mormon narrative (click on the topic to see the post):
- God the Father
- Holy Ghost
- First Vision
- Joseph Smith
- Book of Mormon
- Second Coming
- Purpose of Life
My construction will tend towards being pluralistic, universal/perennial, inclusive, postmodern, in harmony with science (as far as possible), classically mystical/contemplative, interspiritual, liberal/progressive, and point towards practices and ways of living in which we too may experience the Divine directly.
I look forward to discussing these subjects with you, in carrying on a dialogue about them. I hope that through this exchange we may perhaps come to a better understanding of Mormonism and Christianity in the world today, and how we can better approach the Divine, the Transcendent, the Absolute, Reality as it really is, God.
Will you join in this conversation? Will you participate together in this reinterpretation? Will you ask questions, add your own thoughts, disagree with me, share your perspectives, concerns, problem areas, your experiences, how you have reconciled things? I think perhaps the most fruitful discussion will not necessarily be in what I say, but in the dialogue and exchange of ideas with you. I look forward to your contributions.
(Update: I have also now started a Facebook group which will be discussing “Reconstructing Mormonism’s Mystical Core.”)
(The photo at the top of this post is of the Angel Moroni on the top of the Bountiful Utah Temple after being struck by lightning on May 22, 2016. I think it’s a good symbol of how I think Mormon theology is deteriorating, is showing its inner weaknesses, and needs to be reconstructed. The statue was replaced on June 1st, just 11 days before Richard Bushman made his remarks about the current state of the Mormon narrative. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.)