Wrong Question

We are still behaving as though “Which church is true?” is the question most people are asking.

But it no longer speaks to the questions young adults (in this culture, at least) are actually asking.

Wow, she nailed it. Jana Riess that is. In a recent article she points in the direction of something that I’ve pondered for a while. The foundational stories and propositions of Mormonism (speaking broadly), seem to be less and less relevant, especially given the complications that modern historical scholarship have introduced to our previously curated history.

More Americans, especially young adults, are opting out of religion altogether. As one of them said to me recently, “Why do I even need religion? Like, at all?”

Why, indeed?

Such general pondering about the core reason for religion is a far cry from a pointed question like “Which church is true?” The latter presupposes not only a quaint club in which everyone is Christian but also that propositional truth is something that is a) discoverable and b) potentially salvific.

Another effect created by a modern perspective is that claims to “one truth” seem narrow and self-serving. If the vision is not large enough to encompass all of humanity, it just isn’t big enough to be valuable. McConkie-era exclusivity and certainty ring rather shallow in many modern, internet-connected ears.

Riess continues:

The non-Latter-day Saint young adults I speak with today …, life isn’t about finding the “right” church so that you can pledge your loyalty to it and congratulate yourself ever after for being among the righteous few who hold correct doctrinal beliefs.

This makes reaching them both more difficult and more basic. Missionary efforts that begin with a promise of propositional truth (which millennials don’t care about) and end with an assurance of exclusive priestly authority (which they also don’t care about) are going to go over like a lead balloon. Those approaches are asking the wrong question for this people in this age.

What, then, are better questions?

In addition to “why religion?” we could be asking ourselves, for a generation that privileges making the world a better place, “How does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bless the world?”

And for a generation that still believes in heaven and the supernatural despite declining involvement in organized religion, we can say, “What hope does our religion provide people of a better life to come, even if they aren’t members of our faith?”

We don’t need to change our doctrine to do this. We need to listen to the questions that people are actually concerned about.

To many people, goodness is more important than truthfulness. That doesn’t mean you can’t have both, but if you claim truth, goodness should be plainly evidenced; we must overtly address suffering in the world for our goodness and truthfulness to be credible.

Riess addresses this modern paradigm from the question of attracting new converts, but the same issues arise with those born and raised in the Church. Many young people–to include myself, I’ll raise the bar to 51 yrs– want to include all the goodness of humanity in their theology. But, to do so, an emphasis on exclusivity must give way to universality, which is within the scope of LDS belief.

In the book Odds Are, You Are Going to Be Exalted by Alonzo L. Gaskill, the author pulls together a substantial body of teachings to demonstrate that a narrow, exclusionary view is not a good fit for LDS Christian doctrine; a more inclusive perspective is better. (I need to write a post on this insightful book.*)

Anyway, back to the point at hand.

The need to be good and do good for humanity and the environment gets to a prediction that I made March 2018 in my Humanitarian Missions post. We, the LDS Church, might engage the youth of the church more fully by giving them opportunities to be of service to people of the world who are struggling and suffering. This effort has the potential to be a powerful spiritual, even life changing, activity. Institutional growth and retention may result, or not, but if not the good work done remains.

So, I agree with Riess, our best question at this time might be: “How can I help?” With this in mind, I expect (and hope) that self-selected, voluntary humanitarian missionary service is on the horizon.


PS – Speaking of framing church as an organization for doing good, the following LDS Church video does just that: https://youtu.be/yrwK_twhea8

*Until I can get around to writing a full article on Gaskill’s book, hopefully a couple of representative quotes will suffice. From page 22, a somewhat ironic quote from McConkie:

It is a false notion, one not worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that only a few of God’s children will be saved in the kingdom of God. (McConkie and Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration, 533)

And, page 38:

President Lorenzo Snow taught: “When the Gospel is preached to the spirits in prison, the success attending that preaching will be far greater than that attending the preaching of our Elders in life. I believe there will be very few indeed of those spirits who will not gladly receive the Gospel when it is carried to them. The circumstances there will be a thousand times more favorable. (Snow, in Study, Collected Discourses, 3:363)

One thought on “Wrong Question”

  1. I would agree that “which church is true” is an odd question for many people in our modern context. But I don’t think Riess really gets to the core of the issue in her article as to why this is the case (though perhaps she does in her book?). The deepest she seems to go is by asserting that “interfaith” or religious pluralism that exists in our current culture did not exist in the culture of the 1820s and this is the reason why that question seems a little out of touch. To me this argument misses the point (whether or not her assertion is accurate).

    I think the real issue is that modern epistemology has become almost completely secularized. The effects of thinking that the universe is a closed system of cause and effect subtly permeate almost all aspects of our modern culture to some degree or another, often influencing methods first then doctrine. Taken to its logical conclusions, life becomes a meaningless product of chance. But because we each _feel_, we long for something that gives our life meaning. So modern men (and women) try to inject meaning into their lives via religion, humanitarianism, pornography, drugs, music. Within a worldview based on this epistemology it would be perfectly sensible to ask, as a young adult recently asked Riess, “Why do I even need religion? Like, at all?” As a personal, libertarian choice, it really makes no difference what provides that meaning.

    The only way to address this (and the only real hope for Christianity) is to address the underlying epistemology. Yes, we need to talk to our generation in a way they can understand, but we can’t stop there. We need to show that an alternate epistemology is possible (and even more plausible). We need to show that it is possible that the universe is _not_ a closed system (in fact, what proof do we have that it is closed or meaningless?). It is possible that the universe was created by a Personality with rational, meaningful, and loving intentions and that we were created in His image. If this is possible, is it too far fetched to think that this Creator could communicate propositional, objective truths to His children about ourselves and the universe He has created? Or that there are rational absolutes of which we humans consistently fall short? Or that there is a coherent reality and meaningful purpose to everything we experience? Within a worldview based on this epistemology it would make sense to seek after “priestly authority” and “propositional truth”. Only then can we address the ideas of inclusion and salvation that you bring out so well in this post. If we do not correct the epistemological foundation in the minds of the youth, we risk either the youth rejecting God and religion altogether as meaningless, or, worse, leaving the youth with a split epistemology, living a secular “reality” and using religion and God as metaphysical symbols to imbue meaning to their lives, like religious icing on a secular cake.

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