Update

Thanks to all of you who have dropped by Restoration since its inception. It’s nice to see that there has been some interest in what I am doing here. In the past few weeks I have continued to attend the local Community of Christ congregation. I have been welcomed warmly by its parishoners. I have throroughly enjoyed my association with them.

The Sunday School class in this congregation is reading C. Kirk Hadaway’s Behold I Do A New Thing: Transforming Communities of Faith. I would have to say that it is the discussion of this book, as much as anything else, that has motivated me to get out the door to go to church on Sunday. Since I have only participated in discussions of little bits of the book, I can’t summarize it adequately. All I can say is that his approach to the concept of the incarnation in individuals–i.e. living the myth–is potentially revolutionary.

Along with all of the helpful, positive instruction, he offers some warnings regarding what not to do. As a now inactive member of the LDS Church, I found his “don’ts” resonated with my experience in the LDS Church in recent years. Here is a sample:

“Guilt and shame also come into play as negative sanctions in order to keep the cycle of dependency and control going. This is the process that most social institutions, especially churches, employ to control members’ behaviors and keep them inside.

A system is designed for the results it is getting. If you want different results, you must redesign the system.

A cycle of dependency produces controlling leaders and dependent people into a life of giftedness rather than into a prison of unrealized ideals.”

As a Mormon, I identify very much with this darker picture of the sacred community. The LDS Church has increasingly emphasized the importance of obedience to Church leaders as the only safe route to salvation in troubled times. It has truly created a cycle of dependency. At the same time, there is a general assumption that any failures in the Church are the failure of individuals. The LDS Church, as a restored and “true” Church, is not seen as capable of being other than what God has ordained.

In that spirit, the leaders of the LDS Church find themselves counseling their members, time and again, to implement better the divinely instituted programs of the Church. It never seems to dawn on them, at least they would never admit so publicly, that perhaps the problem is not simply one of the people failing, but of the programs themselves being faulty.

So I turn again to the concept of Restoration. In RLDS/CoC circles, the concept of restoration has been redefined as a process. As such, there is always room for change. Times change, and individual needs change, so the same organization will not be perfect for everyone all of the time. It is for this reason that I would advocate treating your church more like a resource for than a source of salvation.

I still very much believe in the concept of eternal progression. This is one of those Nauvoo doctrines that members of the RLDS Church never embraced. I am not faulting them for that. But I will call upon the term as a way of describing a striving toward a more perfect incarnation of the Christ in the individual. I believe that this transformation can occur only when individuals have the space to be creative, to make mistakes, and to learn from them. It will not occur with an officious organization getting in the way.

The LDS Church still maintains the doctrine of eternal progression–that human beings can become like God. Unfortunately, the mechanisms it has in place to perpetuate the institution and further its goals are in fact frustrating the members’ ability to realize that goal. With excessive emphasis on rules and perpetual obedience, the average Mormon is asked to be forever a child. The LDS Church has become, at least for me, “a prison of unrealized ideals.”

Must this be the case? No. Things could change. I think the changes that have occurred in the RLDS/CoC Church provide a ready example. This is not to say that I think the LDS Church should become the Community of Christ. I would actually be disappointed if it dropped many of the distinctive theological and other doctrinal characteristics that trace their origins to the later teachings of Joseph Smith. (I do not begrudge the Community of Christ for not embracing them, either).

What is exciting about the Community of Christ is its faithfulness to certain concepts like free agency. It spends far less effort concerned with the orthodoxy of its members and intellectuals. It gives far more power to individuals and individual congregations for a certain degree of self-determination. I doubt it would hurt the LDS Church to embrace those practices.

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Visiting the Community pt. 2

Here is a piece of wisdom I should pay far more attention to: that small differences can have a large impact. This lesson was brought home again most recently by a couple of pieces of information I heard in one of my visits to the local CoC congregation. To most people they would seem completely mundane. To a lifelong Mormon they were astounding. During one of the CoC congregation’s meetings, the congregation was actually informed of the tithing revenues of their church!

I was blown away! Wasn’t this top secret information that only those with the need to know would know? How could they reveal such sensitive information to the rank and file member of their church? Isn’t this dangerous? (OK, I am being facetious) But seriously, all of my life there have been those little pieces of information that I have simply never questioned not knowing until someone else asked, “why can’t we know about this stuff?” It was only then that it even dawned on me that such secretive behavior made very little sense.

So pardon me when I say I was astonished to see a church founded by Joseph Smith that freely gave out this information to its members. In fact, it seems they do so in the hopes that the members will be inspired to give even more! And I would venture to say that the members probably feel more included in the working of their church as a result. But this was not all. These humble, local church members were also allowed to decide for themselves, as a congregation, on the question of whether they wanted to join other units in a new financial arrangement. Endorsements from the Twelve Apostles of the CoC were circulated, in which the apostles recommended the idea based on their experience of seeing it elsewhere.

After the paramedics revived me from my double heart attack, I sat there dazed. In the Community of Christ, members of local congregations evidently have some voice to make choices regarding how local units operate. Their apostles, instead of pontificating on issues of obedience regarding the command that congregations do ‘X’, recommend matters to members based on practical experience. Have you ever been so refreshed by something you have heard that you had a sudden sense of vertigo? That was me on that Sunday.

It is the authoritarian nature of LDS Church government that, more than any other issue, has made me uncomfortable to the point of ceasing to attend. Oddly, the LDS Church teaches its members about their divine destiny to progress to become like God. At the same time, they place an emphasis on obedience that, if adhered to strictly, would tend to frustrate any efforts of working toward that goal in this life. Then you have the Community of Christ, which has supposedly abandoned all of this wild, Nauvoo theology (and they really have), allowing members to have some power of self-determination as though anyone could be trusted with that.

Some of this seems to come down to the role the churches’ prophets play in their respective organizations. First, I have to say, I never really appreciated the implications of the fact that the Community of Christ has one–a prophet, I mean. As an LDS person I was taught that there is only one prophet on the earth today: the president of the LDS Church. I never gave much thought to the fact that the RLDS/CoC had its own prophet. The first of the Reorganization’s prophets was Joseph Smith III. Indeed, there is some evidence that his father intended that Joseph III succeed him. It took some divine persuasion to get Joseph III to answer that call. When he did, it was partly in answer to the invitation of the branches of the Church in the Midwest who had started the Reorganization effort.

Something about the dynamic of Joseph III answering that invitation left its mark on the RLDS/CoC Church. In short, it always remained more democratic than its cousin in Utah, which was, simply put, a kingdom in the Rocky Mountains with Brigham as its monarch.

Visiting the Community

A couple of years ago, to my pleasant surprise, I noticed there was a Community of Christ congregation in my town. I drove by it on my way to the movies. It was right next door to the vet where I take my dogs. Unlike my LDS chapel, this building had dark, warm, wood siding. Unlike my LDS chapel, it was decorated with a large white cross. The biggest difference was on the sign next to the street. In plain black letters was the name of its pastor–its female pastor.

I thought of dropping by. Maybe I could try to write a piece on the female pastor. I could ask her what she thought of the historical roots of her church with its colorful founder Joseph Smith. I basically had the kind of musings an LDS person might have about the Community of Christ. These musings were informed by years of exposure to the poorly informed denigration LDS people feed each other about the Community of Christ. When I eventually decided actually to attend their Sunday services, many of my prejudices were challenged.

What were these prejudices? I believed that the Community of Christ was simply another Protestant church. I thought that they paid little attention to their history. Granted, their website doesn’t exactly place Joseph Smith on the main page. It is true that they believe in the Triune Deity I was always taught to hold in quiet derision. But, I felt driven to keep digging further, and I discovered many things that I found not only refreshing, but also inspirational.

My first discovery was that they still had patriarchs, but under a new name: evangelists. I wondered, “why call them evangelists?” Then it hit me that when women were given the priesthood (by revelation to the prophet of their church, in fact), patriarch became a problematic name for the office. Then I made another discovery that increased my respect for the Community of Christ. They could have chosen any new name for this new office. Perhaps they could have called female patriarchs ‘matriarchs.’ That would work, right?

Well, what they did do was follow the words of Joseph Smith who said, “a patriarch is an evangelist.” This may seem like a small thing, but when you have been taught to think that the Community of Christ was consistently eschewing its ‘Mormon’ roots, it becomes more than a small deal to see them paying attention to that tradition.

To be continued…

Welcome to Restoration

LDS people sometimes become disillusioned with the LDS Church. This disillusionment usually takes one of two forms. For those very invested in the Church, whose families are Mormon, and who live in a predominantly Mormon area, often this means tolerating the Church from the inside. Staying in the pews, albeit uncomfortably. For others this means severing all ties with the LDS Church–having your name removed from its rolls.

I support all of these choices. Right now, however, I am exploring a third choice. It isn’t a revolutionary idea, but relatively few people take this route. I am attending the Community of Christ, formerly known as the RLDS Church. I haven’t joined the Community of Christ. There are a number of internal hurdles I have yet to jump before I join. In the meantime, I want to share my reflections on the LDS Church, and my experience exploring its more liberal, more Protestant-like cousin–the Community of Christ.

The blog is entitled “Restoration” for a few reasons. First, Mormons claim that the church Joseph Smith founded was a restoration of the early Christian church. This claim has been shown to be problematic as we learn that the history of early Christianity is more complicated than the foundation of a single Christian church that fell into apostasy. I call this blog “Restoration” also because the Community of Christ, recognizing this problem with Joseph Smith’s teachings, have sought to redefine the term in a constructive and creative manner. I am not sure they have succeeded.

Finally, this blog is “Restoration” because this is what I am seeking too. To restore is to return something to its former, pristine state. It also suggests the image of the mythical Golden Age or the legendary Garden of Eden. Restoration in this sense is the attempt to recapture something that may have never, in fact, been. Yet it speaks our best hopes for the future, while anchoring them in a generous vision of the past.

I realized some time ago that I envisioned a Golden Age of Mormonism that in fact never existed. Having been raised to think of the Restoration in literal terms, I romanticized the life and times of its founder. Then I learned the grittier facts of Joseph Smith’s history, and that romanticizing eventually came to an end. The truth is that the Golden Age of Mormonism did not exist in any place other than my hopes. I had to mourn that loss, and perhaps I am not done mourning.

At the same time I want to experience a more mature spirituality. I have found the LDS Church to be a difficult place to seek out that spirituality, because of the pressure to conform and to manifest outwardly a simple appreciation of the ‘truth of the Gospel’ as taught in Mormonism. Unfortunately, I find it painful to say that ‘the Church is true’ when this has no meaning for me any more. In fairness to myself and to others, I have removed myself from among the latter-day saints.

Among the people of the Community of Christ I have found more openness toward grappling with the truth and more tolerance for different perspectives. I do not believe that I have found ‘the one true church’ or the only ‘real’ successors of Joseph Smith, but I am also no longer looking for these things. They are not, in my opinion, to be found. What I would like is to find a community that will accept me as I continue my search for meaning, and where Joseph Smith is accepted as a fellow-traveler in that search. Right now the Community of Christ is the best place I can find in which to do that. It may be the only such place.


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