INTRODUCTION

There is a lot of goodness in Mormonism that should be applauded and emulated, and I hope those who leave and those who stay in the church will vigorously cling to that goodness.  But there are also far more people hurting in and around the church than I once realized.  Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that any members or leaders are trying to be anything but kind, and it isn’t something that we haven’t seen other religions struggle with as well.  It’s just that rigid exclusive truth claims and strong “in-group/out-group” messaging can be a double-edged sword.  These things have always been key elements that help religions to grow, maintain, and motivate members.  However, they also create very high costs when people inevitably struggle with or lose belief.

It’s no joke to have your whole core community (often including spouse, children, parents, in-laws, etc) suddenly view you as lost, deceived, a tragedy, “in Satan’s power,” a cautionary tale, as having “given up,” as having made poor choices or failed to be faithful enough, as being at fault for ruining your eternal family, and as being on a path where one cannot maintain the same degree of happiness, well being, or morality.  The intense effects on personal mental health, and the damage to relationships and sociality, are not adequately appreciated.  There is more at stake than many realize.  And the fact that only 1/3rd of the church is active (only 1/4th of young single adults according to a recent leaked video) should suggest that these challenges deeply affect more people than most realize.  One of the craziest things about going public about my loss of belief was to have my inbox flooded and realize how many people along the way were deeply hurting right before my eyes, and I had no idea.  Many whom I thought were still believing.  I’m tempted to start listing stories, but this would get too long.

So what am I proposing?  Am I out to set the whole thing on fire and burn it to the ground?  What are my hopes for the church?  Why do I make available some of my studies of Mormon topics, and share some of the core issues that caused me to begin to see things differently?  Why not just leave quietly?  I fully understand how hard and painful it is to watch believing friends criticize or deconstruct the faith you love. I feel for you.  And it would make perfect sense to ask people like me to “go quietly” if there weren’t so much at stake for so many people’s lives, or if the minority of church members who are active were the only ones deeply affected by the church.  Anyway, what do I want to happen in Mormonism?  What is the one solution I HOPE both sides can come to agree on?

What Mormonism desperately needs is OPEN DIALOGUE.  A safe place for that open dialogue. Encouragement of that open dialogue from church leaders.  It needs people to say to friends and family members “hey, lets go to lunch periodically so I can understand what led you to your conclusions” rather than only saying “if you just pray more you’ll get the right answer” (or worse, explicitly suggesting they cut off conversation LINK).  Despite all this open discussion I hope to see, we very well may not ever come to the same conclusions, and that is totally fine!  There will at least be mutual understanding that will do wonders in terms of reducing the pain and harm and trauma that many are experiencing around the church.  Though we may not ultimately agree in our conclusions, I hope we can come to agree that this open approach is something to be encouraged.  I think we should agree that truth should not fear investigation and open discussion, but should relish it. I think we should agree that if we truly respect the “agency” of individuals in the church, then that means fostering an environment where everything is out in the open and all perspectives are at least considered.  I think we should agree that if we truly believe in the process described in Alma 32, or D&C 9, then we should believe that it can safely be applied in both directions and be trusted to lead to truth.

I realize this is incredibly scary and dangerous for believers.  Even if one can overcome the fears that they might lose eternal reward if their current beliefs change, there is the very real threat of having spouses, children, parents, friends, in-laws, etc suddenly view you as deceived, lost, etc.  That is why ideally this change should come from the top down.  From the highest leaders of the church.  And that is why I do understand if some of my friends and family members feel that they can’t allow themselves to hear or explore what led to my conclusions.  I get it.  Know that I don’t blame you if you feel you are not one of those who is in a position to be at the forefront of this change I’m hoping to see (though maybe you shouldn’t call people deceived if you aren’t willing to first hear them out?). In any case, I feel this is a change that must be called for.  Those who feel they are in a position to do so can lead the charge.

Again, I believe far less pain would be caused if the change began from the top down.  While this may seem impossible it has actually happened in observable recent history in other faith traditions!

Consider that several decades ago when difficult information was coming to light regarding the Book of Mormon and other issues, the RLDS church (now Community of Christ) chose to hold each other tight and deal with the difficult issues together as a community.  Did they suffer some losses in membership and some initial pain.  Yes.  But they also did the right thing, and prevented untold amounts of future pain and division and harm to relationships as people will always be trickling out anyway.  They ultimately made the church a safe space for people who hold diverse opinions on these matters.  I think it is a beautiful thing.  I HIGHLY recommend listening to this podcast with the prophet/president of this community (LINK).  It is incredibly inspiring, and provides a model of what I believe the LDS church must do, and should have done years ago.  Unfortunately, the LDS church actually went the opposite direction in the early 80’s.  New challenges caused them to retrench into fundamentalism.  They booted an incredible church historian (Leonard Arrington) who was ushering an era of openness (LINK), and they restricted the historical archives, and Elder Packer went to BYU to put on notice any professors who would “tell the full story” (LINK), and they sent the historians many miles away to BYU for a few decades before finally making some steps in the right direction with the Joseph Smith Papers project around 2005.

How about another example?  The Catholic church.  At one time Catholicism wasn’t all that different than Mormonism in the sense that it claimed to be the exclusive source of truth and authority and salvation.  Leaving the church (even for another Christian church) was more often mourned as something extremely tragic.  In the early 60’s the Catholic church convened a rare ecumenical council that was called “Vatican II” or the “Second Vatican Council.”  It was an extremely pivotal time for Catholicism. It was essentially an effort to bring “the church up to date.” As Peter Huff of Xavier University put it:  “Prior to this time, the church had been almost seen as a fortress, very much concerned about its own internal stability and integrity…”  But “Pope John… wanted to create an environment of dialogue, where the church would engage in all the forces of the modern world.”  Among other things, the result was a church that relaxed its exclusive claims to authority, and truth, and salvation.  A church that made its members more able to embrace modern scholarship and knowledge without fear of consequence.  A church that people could leave without experiencing severe trauma in terms of marital issues, familial issues, social issues, and personal mental trauma.  In my view, this was a very positive and needed step.  Again, one that caused initial pain and losses in terms of membership, but also the right thing to do, and something that prevented far greater amounts of pain that would have continued occurring with each passing year in the information age.

So there you have it. Do I want to burn it all to the ground? No, but I do want the LDS church to have its Vatican II.  To learn from and be inspired by the Community of Christ.  As I once heard Bart Ehrman more or less say, the goal of his work isn’t to destroy belief, it is to challenge fundamentalism.  My hope is that the powerful barriers to mutual understanding and perspective taking that currently exist can begin to dissolve.  Do I require that you agree with my conclusions? No, but I believe an incredible amount of pain and heartache will be lessened when the LDS community can create a culture where people can safely listen to the perspectives of others.  Regardless of how our conclusions may differ, there will ultimately be more compassion and understanding of the alternate choices made by friends and family members when this mutual understanding and acknowledgement of complexity occurs.  I suggest that there will be less pain on all sides when this happens.

 

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5 thoughts on “INTRODUCTION

  1. Christian Moore November 2, 2015 / 4:38 am

    Russell this is your apostate cousin!!😀 Wow you have been on a intense journey!! You never need to
    Apologize for seeking truth! Papa was a scientist and valued truth and reason if he was alive today and had all his cognitive abilities I am absolutely sure he would be very concerned with the Churches Changing narrative and enocolation plan! Truth does not need to be spined! Papa would be DAM proud of you if he had access to info you have so keep your head high!! Christian

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  2. Bob W. December 22, 2015 / 5:15 am

    Ok, read everything. A lot of what you say reminds me of my religion classes in High School (Catholic High school, New American bible, non-denominational, Catholics, Jews, Presbyterians, Baptists, Atheists, Agnostics, and me the Mormon, all in one class. That was fun!). I feel I have asked myself a lot of these questions before, and have come to conclusions for some, and have decided to let time help the others unravel.
    I am curious to see what your thoughts on the New Testament and the Book of Mormon are. And, I guess more curious about the end game? When I studied the Old Testament a lot in High School I often came to the question, “Is any of it real?”. The New Testament was easier to believe, though there origins, according to the Catholic church” always seemed sketchy. Look forward to seeing what you think.
    My honest question to you is, whats the end game? The Plan? Like the Plan of Salvation? Or the goal? Like the Celestial Kingdom? If I believe in the LDS Church, and it is true, and I am faithful, then I become a God and have a world and a billion kids, etc etc. What are your thoughts on the end game? Thanks.

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    • Russell Ash December 23, 2015 / 5:39 am

      My end game is to be awesome. To be a good man. To live a great life. To have a great family and be good to them. To raise great kids. To make the world better. To lift others up and ease suffering. To learn and seek truth. To develop charity, temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude. To be present and intentional in each day–and not continually delay happiness for some future date (or afterlife). To be able to say on my deathbed that I tried to live a life authentic to myself, and not being ruled by fear or by the expectations of others. All of that truly is my end game–not because it’s what is expected of me by any outside force, but because its what I want to do, and what I believe will bring a happy and fulfilling life both for me and others.

      If there is an afterlife, it will be an awesome added bonus to this already incredible spinning ball that we’ve had the already incredible good fortune of living on as human beings, and I hope that there is an afterlife. If there is a divine judgment based on my heart, my desires, my efforts to improve myself and live an honorable life, and the way I try to treat other people, I have no doubt that I’m headed the right direction (despite my many faults). Given all that I’ve learned, I no longer have any fear in me that I or my family will either face punishment or be denied blessings from a divine being because I am no longer part of the .061% of people currently on this earth who attend Mormon church at least once a month and dedicate huge portions of their lives to that institution (often to the detriment of more important things). If I’m being honest, if there is a God, I think he would give me a high five for fearlessly seeking truth rather than protecting dogma, and for managing to see a beautiful and inspiring new world outside the box I was in.

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      • Becky O'Brien December 29, 2015 / 7:01 pm

        Hi Russ. You don’t know me but I am a friend of the Woestman family for many years. Am I correct in understanding that you feel unsure of the existence of a God? Do you not believe we are spirit children of Heavenly Father. I read what you wrote above and expected more of an explanation of what issues lead you to this decision. Just trying to understand.

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      • Russell Ash December 30, 2015 / 1:19 am

        Hi Becky. I get that it’s a hard thing for most people to understand, but you’re correct. I’m just speaking for myself here, but I would no longer say that I know there is a God. I hope there is! I want to believe there is! But I’m not going to say I “know,” because I don’t.

        As I share my thoughts please know that I’m certainly not out to convince anyone that there isn’t a God. But if you do want to understand why I (and many others) have doubts, I’ll try to give a brief response.

        For me, the Book of Mormon was holding everything together that otherwise would have been concerning. Once I discovered that the Book of Mormon wasn’t what I thought it was, many other issues that didn’t matter as much before suddenly mattered a lot more:

        First, I accept that our universe likely began something like 13.7 billion years ago–resulting in at least 100 billion galaxies in the known universe, with a single galaxy such as ours likely having 10’s of billions of solar systems, one of which contains our earth. I believe our earth is something like 4.6 billion years old. We can see other planets in the universe in various stages of development that give us a picture of how our earth formed over millions of years through natural processes. Like every science teacher I had at BYU, I also accept the overwhelming evidence that evolution happened. Not just microevolution, but macroevolution—as in, humans evolved from simpler life forms.

        Now, does any of that prove there is no God? No, it doesn’t. In fact, LDS biologist Steven L. Peck wrote a book just this year trying to make room for belief in God while accepting that evolution happened. He understands that at this point the evidence is so strong that it really isn’t going to help to keep denying it. He recognizes that if we don’t incorporate truth into our faith, it may ultimately destroy our faith anyway as people end up feeling forced to choose between the two. Anyway, he believes a God who creates by natural processes and by evolution is even more impressive in some ways, and more theologically defensible. But it does require significant changes in paradigm. If we call God the creator in light of this knowledge, we then do so primarily in the sense that God would simply be like a “programmer” or “initiator” who perhaps creates the right circumstances to initiate or begin what is otherwise a naturally occurring process of creation that occurs over millions or billions of years and ultimately produces the desired outcome. But as I said, a lot of questions still arise. Is there a literal Adam and Eve? Are we truly created “in God’s image” if our bodies are a result of evolution? When in the process of evolution would hominids have been developed enough to be considered “spirit children of God?”

        These are challenging questions—and there are so many more of them—but my belief in the Book of Mormon had kept these questions at bay. When that fell apart, these things became challenging for me again. It was very uncomfortable at first. We humans like certainty, and we love having concrete answers to everything, but as time goes on I’ve come to realize that uncertainty and complexity are a part of life—sometimes a beautiful part of life. I’m recognizing that it’s healthy for us to acknowledge our limitations and uncertainties, and to struggle with these things. Many other religious traditions are far more comfortable with this than Mormons are. All I can do is hold to the things I know are true, and keep trying to figure out the rest as best I can. If there is a God, I truly believe he/she would be quite proud of where I’m headed, and of my desires.

        Apart from that answer, it sounds like maybe you only read my introduction so far. If you haven’t already, you can click on the “Blog” heading at the top of the page and get my more detailed thoughts on other issues I’ve had time to post about so far, but it is a work in progress. I know a key question many people have is the issue of “spiritual experiences”—and I’ll need to dedicate a whole post to that when I can in order to explain where I’m coming from on that issue. I’ll try to get to that as soon as I can.

        We hate the pain this is causing friends and family, and it really makes us hurt knowing it hurts you. But we have to do what we feel is best for our family. Nothing but best wishes for you. I’ll try to answer any further questions as best I can.

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