The Mormon Scholar Richard Bushman, perhaps best known for his award-winning biography about Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, recently did an AMA session on Reddit. As a convert from the LDS faith to Orthodox Christianity, one of Bushman’s exchanges with his questioners stood out for me:
Question: There are many people with a fraction of your knowledge of church history that throw up their hands and give up. They say looking any further into the truthfulness is futile, because what they’ve come to know negates the possibility of truth. What fundamental difference is there in those who let the knowledge negate their faith and those who let knowledge sustain it?
Bushman: For me that is the question of the hour. It is hard to explain. People on each side dream up explanations of the other. The believers say you must be sinning; the unbelievers say you are biased by your background and emotional factors. I don’t know the actual answer. I have come recently to ask people how they feel about Christ. If they still value him, I think they will be okay. But many have given up on Christ and even on God. Their problem in other words is a Christian, not just a Mormon, problem. I don’t know why that happens. People are left without a spiritual anchor of any kind. My hope is that wherever they land they will have the strength to reconstruct a belief they can live by. I don’t like it when anti-Mormonism becomes their religion. That is not a good way to live.
Question: It seems that if the organisation that taught you who and what God is turns out to be a fraud, the the credibility of the existence of said god comes into question. What would you say to those who feel they can’t believe in God or Christ because they think Joseph Smith made this whole thing up?
Bushman: I believe that is what indeed happens, but it implies Mormonism is the whole world for people. When the Mormon world cracks, everything crashes down. Lots of people believe in God and Christ who are not Mormons. Are they all as flawed as the Mormons?
I will say something a little abrasive in hopes of being informed. Should not Mormons have a connection with God that goes beyond the Church? Do we worship God or do we worship Mormonism? What should we teach our people to protect them from this vulnerability?
Bushman’s words speak to a pressing reality. When a Mormon loses faith in the LDS Church, he or she tends to disregard faith and religion entirely. The thought process that leads Mormons to lose all faith is as follows:
1. I was taught that the LDS Church is the only true church and all others are in error.
2. I no longer believe that the LDS Church is true.
3. Therefore, since the only true church isn’t true, no church is true.
The central mistake of this argument is that, while disregarding the truth claims of the LDS faith, it still adheres to its claim that all other churches are in error. One should instead realize that if they think the LDS Church is wrong about its central tenets, perhaps it is also wrong in claiming all other faith traditions are erroneous. This argument is understandable, especially to those who grew up learning apostasy narratives. The LDS Church holds and teaches that, at some undefined point, the early Christian Church lost apostolic authority and Christianity then became corrupted by Platonic philosophy. As a result of this narrative, seeing Christianity as corrupted lingers for the ex-Mormon and is further reinforced by the evermore prominent and vocal critics of religion.
Bushman, however, encourages Mormons to be rooted, first and foremost, in Christ so that if their faith in Mormonism is undermined, they will still have a Christian anchor. I applaud Bushman for placing Christianity above Mormonism, but this, in reality, is difficult for Mormons, given the uniqueness of the LDS faith’s perspective of God and Jesus Christ. A Mormon cannot simply disregard everything about the LDS faith save its notions of God and Jesus Christ. These notions are unique to and dependent upon the LDS narrative. In order for a Mormon to have a Christian faith capable of surviving departure from Mormonism, his or her Christian view would have to be capable of functioning independent of LDS doctrine, and this seems untenable given the interdependency of LDS doctrine and the LDS view of God and Jesus Christ. The problem, though, is that this independent Christianity would likely be irreconcilable with the greater LDS theological perspective.
A Mormon must either lose his or her faith entirely and rebuild anew from the ground up, or gradually transition from one theistic perspective to another. In either case, the Mormon’s Christianity or theism cannot be an anchor by which faith remains constant. The truth of this claim is demonstrated by asking why one should maintain belief in the unique Mormon view of the godhead when the veracity of Mormonism itself is the basis for accepting or rejecting the view. I suppose one could independently find grounds for accepting a view of God and Jesus Christ similar to Mormonism’s, but this itself would be a transition or reconstruction, since the entire basis for one’s faith would be altered. Transitioning from one Christian worldview to another, at least in my experience, was more akin to switching boats and anchors entirely.
Perhaps Bushman has all this in mind. Perhaps when he says one should put Christianity above Mormonism he means to say one should find a way to make Christianity work, even if the Mormon way doesn’t. Either way, it is interesting to hear from a man whose faith in God transcends his denomination.