"I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells." - Dr. Seuss
Question #92292 posted on 07/02/2019 12:54 p.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

What are the most critical issues facing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today?



Dear Yvie,

1. Our stance on the LGBTQ community.

2. Church history.

3. Allllllllll the changes. (Which are mostly good and I'm happy with a lot of them but calling them all revelation may cause some cognitive dissonance for some.)

4. Women's rights.

5. Culture vs. doctrine.

-guppy of doom


Dear Yvie,

I totally agree with guppy of doom. I feel like those issues are quite critical here in North America, and especially among the younger population of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

I just spent the last month in South America and the issues that I saw were quite different. I think the biggest issue in South America are members never really integrating into the Church, or leaving the Church due to contention between members. Missionary work is thriving in South America but keeping people in the Church is quite a challenge.

I think the overall theme that encompasses the issues in both North and South America is making the church a place where people feel like they belong and are loved and appreciated. We teach that everyone is a child of God and that he loves us all equally but members often feel a disconnect and it needs to be fixed.

I think ministering will play a big part in creating the atmosphere of unity, love, and belonging. I also think that there will need to be some policy changes, changes in the way certain doctrines are taught, apologies, and changes in LDS culture for us to get where we need to be.

I believe in the Restoration and in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  God is perfect and we aren't, but sometimes people use that phrase as a way to excuse individual and collective thoughts. I personally have seen many ways that people have been blessed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but there's more we should be doing to make the Church a place where more people can feel that way.




Dear Yvie,

You did not expect a novel in response to your question. But surprise! I have written you one nonetheless. Spoiler alert: it's long. If the theophilosophical musings of a twenty-something nobody from California are of no interest to you, feel free to keep scrolling. If you feel obliged to read it, however, since you asked the question and you're the sort of person who feels bound by such a debt, I hope that it's an illuminating experience even if you disagree with me. I've inserted you, the reader, as an interlocutor in this conversation, and I apologize if you feel like I've made you more skeptical or petulant than you are in real life. It's not that I suspect that any of you specifically are this kind of reader; it's just that having an imaginary voice pushing back against mine made it easier for me to structure what I've been thinking. So here we go.

(Footnotes are in hovertext. Mouse over the end of this sentence to see what I mean.0)

[You: What are the most critical issues facing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today?]

I think others are right to suggest that views on LGBTQ+ issues are likely to be one of the biggest challenges the Church will have to overcome this century, especially in North America. Among post-Boomer generations who are much more socially liberal than their parents, the Church is by many reports hemorrhaging members. (I think I read somewhere, and it wouldn't surprise me if it's true, that it's only retaining about half of millennials. Don't quote me on that, though.) My guess? I think there's a significant chance that it will snowball into an existential Mormon identity crisis not unlike the one precipitated by the end of polygamy, which fractured the Church into several branches and created weird doctrinal issues that have ricocheted through to the present.1

To me, though, the current impasse around LGBTQ+ issues is symptomatic of a deep, unacknowledged, structural problem that the Church is ill-equipped to address. It actually lies at the heart of many of the most visible challenges that Mormonism is struggling with, including its failures of gender equality, its tendency toward historical whitewashing, and the contemporary muddle of the policy/doctrine/practice question that breaks so many people's shelves, including, when it's broken, mine. I'm going to call this problem a failure of epistemic humility.

[You: That just sounds like snobby jargon to me.]

Yeah, I know. But I've actually found it to be a really useful vocabulary for what I'm talking about, so let me explain. An episteme, for the non-philosophers in the room,2 is a theory of how we know things. If I know, for example, that eating an entire large barbecue chicken pizza every night for dinner will make me balloon to the size of a small hippopotamus,3 I'm implicitly relying on at least one theory of knowledge. A couple such theories might be the following:

  1. We can know things by personal experience. Maybe I have been eating an entire large barbecue chicken pizza every night for dinner, and I've seen a corresponding increase in the size of my waistline. If that's what I'm basing my knowledge on, then I'm assuming that my own experience can tell me something true about the relationship between calories and weight gain.
  2. We can know things by the scientific method. Our knowledge that eating lots of calories contributes to weight gain has been corroborated by experiment after experiment, a hypothesis proved by repeated testing over many years. If that's what I'm basing my knowledge on, then I'm assuming that the scientific method can tell me something true about the relationship between calories and weight gain.

These don't seem at all controversial: of course we can know things by our own experience, and of course we can know things by the scientific method. Most of the time, we don't consciously think about our epistemes at all because they're so deeply embedded in our systems of thought that no one in our own circles is questioning them. But it's important to remember that no epistemology can be taken for granted. Your personal experience will sometimes contradict mine, and personal experience can be so easily colored by our cognitive biases that it's way less reliable than we tend to think it is. These facts don't discredit personal experience as an episteme, but they do point to its weaknesses. The scientific method is so foundational to everything we do that it seems crazy to even question it—and believe me, I don't want to give science-deniers any more fuel to add to their fire. But even the scientific method is historically contingent: in the whole history of Western culture, we really only started using it consistently about three hundred years ago.

[You: This isn't really answering my question.]

Don't rush me! I'm getting there, but I'm going to drag you through 5,000 words of detailed and unnecessary setup first. #sorrynotsorry

I'm not trying to suggest that any particular episteme is wrong or bad. I just want to point out that none of them are as transparent or incontestable as they often seem. This is where we get the classic perception of conflict between religion and science: religion doesn't adhere to the epistemic rules that science has set for itself, and science doesn't buy religion's epistemic rules, either. People who insist on their incompatibility usually think that an episteme has to be totalizing in order to be valid, i.e., that all of our knowledge has to come from that particular episteme. That if it comes from anywhere else, it can't be true.

I can't overemphasize how problematic that perception is. All individuals make use of different epistemes as they form their own bodies of knowledge, and those epistemes are often in conflict with each other. The whole idea of different epistemes is actually really easy for Mormons to understand because our theology pushes a very clear and distinct episteme that defines our community: we can know things by the Spirit. Because we've so deeply internalized this, we switch between epistemes naturally all the time without giving it a second thought. If someone says "I know that Jesus is the Savior of the world" or "I know that the Book of Mormon is true," they're relying on their epistemic confidence that listening to the Spirit is a valid way of knowing things. If they say "I know that Endgame was a terrible movie,"4 they're relying on a very different theory of knowing things. Different kinds of knowledge have different sources, different manifestations, and different purposes. We need different epistemes to deal with them.

[You: So what do you mean by "epistemic humility?]

Have you heard of the book The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins? I'm not going to link to something that deserves so much less attention than it's already received, but the title should tell you enough: Dawkins, essentially, thinks he can be so confident that God does not exist that he can proclaim religion to be a delusion, that its ubiquity in human culture can be explained away as an accidental byproduct of some biological or social mechanism that developed early in our evolutionary history. 

It's a fairly common atheistic argument, and not, in fact, a bad one. If we're really committed to the value of debate and the plurality of ideas, it's an argument that's hard to refute. On the days when the very idea of God seems unlikely to me, I find a savage sort of pleasure in imagining what evolutionary purpose religion might have served in the early life of homo sapiens. But the whole thing rubs me wrong, and a lot of people smarter than I am—including prominent atheists who have no interest in defending faith as an episteme—have offered measured and thoughtful critiques that point out why Dawkins' book is so problematic. Most of them revolve not around the argument itself but around the arrogance with which Dawkins puts it forward, the utter conviction that he is right, his inability to imagine the value of an episteme that is not the scientific method or, more broadly, human rationality. Let me here quote Terry Eagleton,5 a prominent literary critic, in a review he wrote of The God Delusion:

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right.

What Eagleton is registering here is Dawkins' epistemic egotism, the hubris it requires to unilaterally declare that he's right because his theory of knowing is superior to everyone else's, to the extent that he dismisses everyone else's as a delusion without ever taking the time to even understand epistemes that conflict with his own. Epistemic humility, by contrast (and I'm quoting Wikipedia here) is "rooted in the recognition that (a) knowledge of the world is always interpreted, structured, and filtered by the observer, and that, as such, (b)...pronouncements [of knowledge] must be built on the recognition of observation's inability to grasp the world in itself."6 In other words, epistemic humility is an acknowledgement not only that we don't know everything but that our very systems of knowing are limited by the fact that we—noisy, brash, irrational, biased, passionate humans that we are—have to interpret the knowledge we get from them.

It's easy for us, Mormons, to see the epistemic egotism in an atheist like Dawkins because we embrace the very episteme he's deriding. It's harder to see, I think, when the institutions that define our own community begin to show signs of this sort of absolutism. And here's where things get dicey. I really think that the biggest challenge facing the Church today is its own tendency toward a sort of epistemic hubris, a degree of overconfidence7 in its own systems of knowing that is really off-putting to many of those seeking the truth. People end up feeling uncomfortable in the Church for the same reason they feel uncomfortable reading The God Delusion: not because they disagree with its precepts, per se, but because we, Mormons, are so invested in maintaining the illusion that our epistemic fortresses are completely watertight. 

[You: That's a vague and unsubstantiated claim. Can you give me an example?]

Sure. There are lots of examples, but I'll stick with two:

Example 1: Missionary Lessons

When I was a missionary, we taught lots of people who were sincerely seeking the truth. We dutifully assured them that if they prayed to know whether Joseph Smith was a prophet, they would receive an answer—and the answer, of course, would be yes. Crucially, we also marked the singular truth of the Restoration as the linchpin for everything else, the keystone of our religion, because if the Restoration was true, then everything that stemmed from it must by default also be true. Do you see the epistemic totality there? The all-or-nothing language of that first Preach My Gospel lesson casts our episteme of faith (in other words, our theory of how to know whether the Church is true) as perfect, infallible, completely coherent.

The trouble was, occasionally we would have investigators who as far as we could tell met all the criteria in Moroni 10: they asked with a sincere heart, they had real intent, and they had faith in Christ. But they didn't get an answer, or they felt the answer was no

Because we, as missionaries, were invested in the illusion of a perfect episteme, we found lots of ways to rationalize this failure. If these truth-seekers didn't get an answer, well then, they didn't know how to recognize it, or they were praying wrong, or they were sinning in some way that kept them from feeling the Spirit, or some selfish kernel of their soul wasn't prepared to give everything over to God. But as I've gotten older, I've found I don't believe in a God who would withhold truth from an earnest child who comes asking for it, no matter how they pray or how distant they are from the Divine at the moment. (For the record, I don't think Mormon theology can really uphold an image of that kind of god, either—imagining such a stingy and arbitrary deity seems fundamentally at odds with Christ's liberality in Matthew 7:7. "Seek, and ye shall find," he says. "Knock, and it shall be opened unto you." No "unless you forget to pray in my name" or "unless you're sleeping with your girlfriend." No stipulations, no qualifications.)

So our episteme obviously had a leak in it somewhere. (I'm still not sure where it is, and sometimes I wonder whether the whole ship is so full of holes that it's actually sitting at the bottom of the ocean. That's my own perpetual faith crisis speaking.) But notice what our own epistemic egotism led us to do: because we were so confident in our own theory of knowledge, we dismissed out-of-hand another person's honest search for truth. We were more willing to degrade other human beings—to assume that their hearts were less pure than ours, to consider them less capable spiritual agents than we were, to do them the discredit of oversimplifying their own complex understanding of the world—than to admit even the possibility that we were wrong. When I think about the rameumptom these days, that unconscionable pride weighs heavily on my mind. I'm still repenting for it.

Example 2: Disciplinary Councils

One thing the age of the internet has enabled is a beautiful web of connection between people who share similar interests but may never have the opportunity to meet each other in person. The result has been an unprecedented bubbling up of imaginative theological conversation on a lay level, from inconspicuous forums like the Board to more prominent ones like By Common Consent, LDS Living, Sunstone, and Exponent II. Whatever you think about the merits of these individual publications, they've been a force of decentralization in the Church, allowing people who might otherwise remain silent (like, ahem, me) to speak with a voice of authority that they may not have within the hierarchy of the Church. It's been possible for reasoned critique, doctrinal speculation, and personal experience from people who aren't ordained leaders to participate in the making of Mormon theology in a way that was never imaginable before.

Unfortunately, though, this increase in active, sincere, grassroots attempts to engage with and find unconventional answers to some of the faith's harder questions has often been met with hostility from the Church. As people like John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, and Gina Colvin have sought to arrive at their own set of truths and help others walk the same minefield, their leaders have convened disciplinary councils to excommunicate them for apostasy. To me, these draconian trials seem totally contrary to the ethos of Mormonism, a theology which declares that the glory of God is intelligence, which conceives of itself as a child of Luther's democratization of scripture and spiritual communion, which invites everyone to "bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it." The message of a disciplinary council is that if you preach a truth that doesn't come from the upper echelons of Church leadership, you are a threat to our community of Christians. It signals that if you've discovered some kind of dissonance within the approved episteme, you're not allowed to speak about it publicly and you should only turn to authorized sources in your attempt to come to grips with it. 

These excommunications and near-excommunications—in fact, the whole idea that someone can be excommunicated for apostasy—expose some of our deepest and most primal anxieties about our own epistemes. They show that we are sometimes more interested in preserving the illusion of a united, doctrinally unassailable theology than in exploring where the holes or contradictions in that theology might be. One of the most life-changing realizations I had in college was that truth humbly invites debate. If we hope that something is true, we should be willing to submit it to prodding and testing and skepticism from all sides, and we should be willing to refine our notion of truth as our attention is drawn to its weaknesses. Disciplinary councils do the opposite. They seek to foreclose honest conversation about holes and contradictions and protect the good name of the Church instead. To me, it seems that a fear of dissent actually evinces a profound fear that our episteme is vulnerable, that the truths we proclaim may not be able to hold their own when challenged by others. If we're really convinced that what we preach is the doctrine of Christ, we should be confident that it will speak for itself. We shouldn't have to worry that someone else's conflicting assertion of truth will bring it crumbling down, but disciplinary councils reveal that, at least on some level, we're very worried indeed.

In a less public way, this massive essay I'm posting to the Board has to grapple with the same questions. I've been trying lately to be more honest about my increasing heterodoxy, which is why I'm writing this, but I'm still vaguely worried that laying bare my own unconventional search for truth will come back to bite me in the butt. This answer is pretty directly critical of the institutional Church. Will it disqualify me from working at BYU once I graduate with my PhD? Will I get a call from my bishop next week saying he'd like to discuss the heresy I've been posting online? Will the editors even let this answer publish? (Hello, editors, if you're still reading. I won't blame you if you take this down, because you're doing the same kind of mental calculations.) The impulse toward censorship on any level—my own self-censorship, potential Board censorship, censorship by excommunication—is baked into our Church-wide investment in the idea of an infallible episteme.

[You: So why would you say epistemic egotism a challenge for the Church, especially today?]

Though I can't say for certain, I suspect that recent generations tend to bristle more under epistemic absolutism than earlier ones. Part of this is because we've grown up in a postmodern culture that has become more skeptical of grand narratives and better at deconstructing "truth"—that is, analyzing what power structures have produced the things that get labeled "true" and identifying who stands to benefit. Another part is because the absolutism has become more obvious in the age of the internet, where people can share their experiences and their own search for truth in much less mediated and more public ways. I think younger generations find that kind of totalizing rhetoric off-putting in a way their parents may not have done. We encounter contradictions and aren't impressed when people respond, "Well, we don't really know, but the Church is never wrong, so put that question on a shelf until God sees fit to answer it."

This kind of absolutism has led to a feedback loop, an untenable form of circular reasoning that lands us in terrible contradictions. One of them is the missionary lesson example I described earlier. We say, "If Joseph Smith was a prophet, then this is Christ's true church. If it isn't, the whole thing crumbles." If people don't receive the answer that Joseph Smith was a prophet—which many of them don't, despite our relentless propaganda to the contrary—we've set them up to reject the whole Church. On a more general level, when members get curious and go searching for the unvarnished details of Joseph's life, they tend to find information (actual facts, not just "anti-Mormon" propaganda) that plunges their testimony of his prophet-hood into doubt. If these honest truth-seekers come to the conclusion that he wasn't a prophet, they feel that their only option is to leave because none of the rest can be true. In both cases, we've created a false binary: either it's all true or it's all false. You can buy into everything or you can leave.

Another contradiction that occurs to me is our eagerness to comfort ourselves with the narcissistic confidence that God will never allow the prophet to lead the Church astray. You can see the presumption of an infallible episteme at work there: the episteme is that we can know things because the prophet says they are true, and our confidence that this theory of knowing is perfect blinds us to the weaknesses of a such a claim. First, doesn't it seem conveniently circular that that reassurance comes from a prophet himself? Usually, it's good to at least be skeptical of truth claims made by people who stand to benefit from them. Accepting without question a prophet's declaration that God won't let him mislead the Church is not unlike trusting oil executives when they say they're going to hold themselves accountable for reducing their environmental impact—it's not impossible that they will, but it's important to recognize that they have an incentive to say they'll regulate and an incentive to keep polluting. It's always possible that what the prophet is teaching really is God's will, but it's important to recognize that Church leaders have an incentive to keep us second-guessing ourselves before second-guessing them, to always keep us thinking, "My conscience is hurting over this thing I'm being asked to do or believe, but I must be wrong because the prophet said that God would never allow a prophet to lead the Church astray."

Second, when the saints blindly believe a statement like that, it cuts spiritual responsibility out of the equation entirely. Suddenly the prophet doesn't have to worry about getting things wrong because he can be blithely confident that God won't let him. What a terribly dangerous arrogance to fall into. The enormous and grave responsibility of being the spiritual sentinel for millions of people ought to compel such a leader to constantly be checking himself, seeking humble feedback on whether he's wrong, always nagged by a profound anxiety that he might have mistaken what God wants. Trusting to the infallibility of our episteme makes that kind of crucial humility a lot harder to achieve.8 What's more, suddenly members of the Church can duck out of difficult decisions, too: rather than having to probe the things that are offered to us as true, rather than exercising our God-given gift of spiritual discernment to sort out truth from falsehood, we can simply shrug and say, "If the prophet says so, so it is."9 It undermines our ethical responsibility to pursue the truth and act on it at any cost, instead allowing us to surrender our critical truth-discerning faculties (i.e., our conscience) to other people. I think God expects waaaaay more spiritual maturity out of us than that.

This sort of epistemic egotism drives people away from the Church. During the second hour of the block today, my ward watched a broadcast from a regional authority who said that convert baptisms in North America have dropped dramatically over the last six years. Correlation, of course, does not imply causation, but it's worth considering that six years ago is around the same time that a majority of Americans first approved of gay marriage. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to speculate that the Church's views on LGBTQ+ issues have contributed to that attrition. I'm not suggesting that churches should determine doctrine according to poll numbers, which would make them toothless bottom-feeders without any real moral authority, but it's also hard to argue that shifts in public opinion haven't driven previous major changes within Mormondom, such as the extension of the priesthood to all races and the recent adjustments that have made the endowment more palatable to women.10 But because the Church insists that all of the truths that have emerged from the ongoing Restoration have always been revealed by God, it can't apologize for times when it may have been in the wrong. It has to smile and say, "That was God's will then, but this is God's will now." Polygamy, racism, homophobia, benevolent patriarchy: these are issues we could begin to confront if the Church were willing to say, "Yeah, maybe are [or were] wrong. Give us a chance to ask God with a sincere heart and real intent, having faith in Christ, and God will make the truth of it known." Church leadership have shown no commitment to doing so. The result is a structure for determining truth so rigid and inflexible that I can't imagine God ever intended it.

- - - - -

So here's a radical idea: let us stop pretending our epistemes are absolute. Let us avoid the language of knowledge in favor of the language of belief or hope. Let us trade our "I know the Church is true"—which none of us really do, since faith is not a perfect knowledge of things—for the more humble "I hope the Church is true." Let us acknowledge that, as Paul so eloquently said, "we see through a glass, darkly," and that any such glass will color our perceptions of the truth, and that our body of truth is not only incomplete but also imperfect, striated with human error and cultural folly. Let our people make more room in our talks, in our classes, in our services, in our ward councils, in our youth activities, in our private, heartfelt conversations with those we love, for different kinds of truth, even for disagreements about truth. Let our people meet those who arrive at different truths with respect for and deference to their process of searching, rather than with skepticism that they've looked in the right places. Let our Sunday schools and our seminary classes not be lecture halls where a standardized, official set of truths is repeated and rehashed and beaten to death but rather radically open forums where we can talk about difficult things without fear of judgment, without feeling like impossible questions can only be met by the same worn-out, uncontroversial answers. Let our people not take for granted that the Church is true.


In other words,

Let our people seek truth, and make truth, together.


[You: Wait a second. This sounds like moral relativism by another name. Get thee hence, Satan!]

That's not an unreasonable accusation. If we have the epistemic humility to say that our theories of knowing things are incomplete, doesn't that mean our truths have to be formed by a number of epistemes? And doesn't each person pick which epistemes they rely on? So isn't the ultimate implication that everybody gets to decide for themselves what is true?

The short answer to those questions is, probably, yes. But I think the term "moral relativism" has been picked up by alarmists both in the Church and beyond without thinking through what it means or what its implications really are. First of all, it's worth considering that even the God we worship is something of a moral relativist: if not, why tell the Israelites "Thou shalt not kill" and then turn around and command Nephi to murder Laban? That's a simple example, but evidence enough that God considers truth to be contingent on the situation. What's more, the whole plan of salvation turns on a form of relativism, since we believe that each of us will be held accountable according to our own knowledge and capacities. An absolutist system, one that doesn't tailor itself to each individual, would apply the same punishment to everyone for the same sin, regardless of extenuating circumstances, which I don't think anyone who believes in a loving God can really accept. And Christ himself suffered not in the abstract but in the particular, taking upon himself not just the sins of the world but her sins, his sins, your sins, my sins. These beautiful elements of our faith point to a deeply individualized, deeply relative plan for our eternal growth.

So moral relativism is hardly anathema to our beliefs. What's more, a kind of moral absolutism lies at the core of any ideology and thus has created its own share of nasty debacles throughout human history, including concentration camps and McCarthyism. (This Psychology Today blog post isn't particularly well-written, and its tone is a little smug. Nonetheless, I think it explains succinctly and clearly one of the reasons moral absolutism is problematic.) What we get when we wed the notion of personal revelation with the idea of imperfect epistemes (moral relativism) is the promise that we never have to surrender our conscience to a not-necessarily-but-potentially corrupt authority—that we can use those authorities to help us along where they work for us, but that we beat our own personal paths up the mountain towards God as we assemble our own set of truths. It keeps us from forcing them on anyone else or assuming that our path is the best path for everyone around us.

Perhaps the harder question is this: is epistemic humility compatible with our own theological truth claims? I mean, we make a lot of REALLY BIG ONES: that this is the only true church, that we're the only ones with God's actual authority, that our leaders speak for God, that the afterlife is real and it's crazier than any of y'all imagined, etc., etc. We're preaching that anyone who doesn't get baptized by the proper authority into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in this life or the next literally can't keep progressing eternally. Can we believe that but then turn around and say "well but we might be wrong so no problem if you disagree with us it's like whatevs"? Surely that belief should instill in us an urgency to convince others that we're right and help them come to the same conclusion?

Maybe this is a cop-out, but I don't have an answer to this question. The older I get, the less sold I am on these big claims myself; I often think that even if the LDS Church is the only one with God's authority (which I'm not sure about), maybe God still directs people to other churches because that's what will do the most good at the moment, either for them individually or for the potential they'll have to do good for others. I can't believe that the Mormon vision of the Celestial Kingdom is really accurate (I mean, single people will be ministering angels? Seriously?) or that God doesn't have a place in heaven for LGBTQ+ folks. So maybe it's easier for me, unsure of these claims as I already am, to insist on epistemic humility than it would be for someone who fully believes in them. But part of me suspects that this failure of epistemic humility can't be fixed without a radical rethinking of which doctrines that are central to our theology. It would probably mean deemphasizing the priesthood, temples, and prophets and putting Christ back at the center of our worship, making sure everything we do and teach is to help us and those around us become more like him. It might make for a broader definition of "Mormonism" that more people feel they can claim. That's a big ask, and it's a huge part of why I said that the Church is ill-equipped to solve this problem. I don't know if it can solve this problem without remaking itself from the ground up, which, as anyone who's studied large, bureaucratic organizations knows, isn't likely to happen anytime soon.

[You: So where does that leave us, then? It sounds like you're raising the specter of a problem without offering a solution.]

Well, at the risk of sounding even more pretentious than I already do, I want to introduce another philosophical term here: aporia. It comes from Ancient Greek and, essentially, means "impasse." In contemporary philosophy, it sort of refers to a point of doubt or indecision, but it's stronger than that—it's not just something about which people disagree, it's something on which no resolution is possible. We, humans, have a tendency to want to escape aporias, to arrange everything we know into neat, structured rows that never contradict each other or leave us in uncomfortable spots of confusion. I bring this to the table because it's been really useful to me over the last couple of years as I've found myself more and more in those spots, racked with cognitive dissonance and unable to see how I can reconcile disparate elements of my own belief system. Realizing that these are personal aporias has allowed me to grow more comfortable with discomfort, to stop feeling like the ultimate goal of critical is to resolve everything into picture-perfect systems of knowledge. The best response to your question is that this train of reasoning leaves us in our own aporia, not with answers but with lots of questions. And what's great about an aporia is that it's vibrating with potential energy: they are the birthplaces of creative and imaginative thought, where people who are trying to answer difficult questions do their most productive work. So far, it's not work that I've done. But maybe that will be my next project.

Now that I've jumped down your throat and spent an hour of your time pontificating on things you didn't ask about, I want to say thanks for asking this question. I know that solid walls of text on the Board are everybody's cue to yawn and keep scrolling, so I doubt anyone's made it far enough to be reading this paragraph. Admittedly, this post kind of turned into my answer to all the questions I wish you had posed, rather than a straightforward answer to your question. Forgive my soapboxing. But writing this answer has allowed me to articulate the impressions that have been structuring my relationship with the Church lately, and whether you agree or disagree with them, I hope you've found them thought-provoking. If nothing else, you should know that I spent hours and hours writing this and even learned to use hovertext (including a mess-up in the html where I accidentally deleted two full paragraphs and had to completely rewrite them) for your sake. Hope you're happy.

Yours, &c.

Heidi Book obviously fancies herself a Mormon Kierkegaard. So bite me.

P.S. Aaaaaaaaaaaaand, as promised in footnote 3, a gratuitous picture of a small hippopotamus:

baby hippo.jpg

[Source: National Geographic, which will link you to maybe the sweetest video ever made about a baby hippo.]

[By the way, it turns out that baby hippos weigh only 50 to 125 pounds at birth, so this particular small hippopotamus is maybe not the metaphor for human obesity that I was imagining.]


Hey Yvie,

Aside from the obvious popular answers that have also been mentioned, I'd say money management and reconciling the discrepancies of world conflicts while trying to have a worldwide church. The money comes from the U.S., but the church's future membership could truly belong to Africa and Asia.*

Let's take what is probably the most discussed item, and that is the church's stance on gay marriage. Elder Perry, in his last talk, pointed out that the majority of the world does not accept it. This was before it was legal in Taiwan, but let's think about the places where it's not really accepted:

  • Africa
  • India
  • China
  • Russia
  • Other parts of Europe
  • Malaysia and Indonesia
  • Most of the rest of Asia
  • Kinda mixed in Central and South America right?
Really, it's just some of Europe, and English-speaking countries.
If the church says okay, that puts members in these areas in very difficult positions.
If it doesn't more and more of the people who provide money leave.
And this is just big picture stuff that doesn't even get into the individual issues of people who are gay (I politically support gay marriage all the way, incidentally).
I feel like this would be a difficult thing to manage from a big-picture / all the LDS in the world type of view. I think lots of other issues have and will have this kind of tension going forward.

Good luck to all leaders and members,

*This reminds me of that time when Jesus said that a prophet must come from without one's country. Europe took to someone from the Middle East, and so did Africa. Curiously this hasn't applied as much in Asia. Maybe it's a Western thing?

Dear Yvie,

I think the same as always: how to remind the faithful of the purpose of being part of the Church. This applies to domestic and abroad. Domestically, we seem to have a lot issues with the relevance of any church as a society and that is bleeding into our church membership. 

-Anonymous Alum