I’ve talked to, heard from, or heard about a number of people in the Mormon world who upon hearing about John Dehlin’s excommunication were worried about what it meant for them. You see, in my experience, when we get to know people well enough we find that we are all heretics in our own particular ways. I have my own basket of suspicions about how the world works, how God works, how human and divine things work, and they’re probably different than yours. I’m not going to bother you with my personal favorites today, and you don’t have to share yours with me unless you feel like it, but most of us have some of these. Not all of us have realized the fact.
However, for those who have it can be an uncomfortable experience realizing that we may have some belief that makes us different. And not different in the sense of “You have mutant healing power and I have mutant psychic abilities, let’s all be X-Men,” but more like “I feel like I have an unsightly not-quite-PG tattoo on my forehead and have to wear a low-brim hat around to interact with respectable society and there’s nothing I can do about it, but that tattoo (however unfortunately) nevertheless reflects my honest opinion.” Just to clarify that’s never happened to me so I can only imagine the details of what the whole hat thing would be like, but hopefully you get my point.
I know that some who find themselves in this situation wonder whether they will be disciplined for having ideas that might not match with prevailing views, or perhaps because they from time to time feel the need to talk about them in order to think through and process or evaluate their tentative conclusions—and let’s be honest, our process of charting our way through this world involves all sorts of tentative conclusions and models of reality that contain parts or wholes that may or may not pan out. Why shouldn’t it? In this life we see through a glass darkly. We have these little data points of instantiated living, and sometimes little data points of instantiated divinity that can point the way toward a model of human and divine things, but the model doesn’t come to us fully formed.
To make matters worse much of human experience is ambiguous, and some people’s spiritual gifts are not such as to be able to say “I know” easily, though their spiritual gifts may yet be impressive and even breathtaking in their intended sphere of action. “Knowing” doesn’t always give people compassion as an automatic secondary endowment, and compassion doesn’t always lead easily to “knowing”. And charity is not a mere outgrowth of knowledge, but an independent and glorious gift in its own right, which we are informed is in some respects the greatest of all gifts. It specifically states in the Doctrine and Covenants 88:118 that,
118 And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.
It seems to me that this scripture, which is given in the context of the saints preparing for the Kirtland temple, suggests that while some will gain their perspective of divine things through revelation others will need to do so through study, and that this is designed to be a community endeavor in which all learn together in order to allow all to receive together blessings that no one of them could receive individually. If this is true, then do not both those who are given to know and those who perhaps believe on their words in lieu of first hand experience both contribute what gifts they are given to the building up of the Kingdom of God on the earth and for the establishment of Zion, and are they not all each valued for what they contribute when we reach that state.
It does seem a lot of people express and share their understanding of divine things using terms such as “I know”, and at times may be more liberal with such usage than circumstances warrant, but for those who only desire to believe, Elder Holland’s 2013 General Conference talk should provide some degree of reassurance.
Yet some still worry about whether their current views of divine things will put them at odds with the Church. They worry that their need to reach out to others to think through their thoughts may someday put them some day on the wrong side of Church discipline. I’ve already posted about the idea that the Dehlin discipline was about just asking questions. I would contend that it was also not for having unusual beliefs. For example, his Stake President, shared this perspective in his letter of excommunication,
I want you to know, Brother Dehlin, that this action was not taken against you because you have doubts or because you were asking questions about Church doctrine. Rather, this decision has been reached because of your categorical statements opposing the doctrine of the Church, and their wide dissemination via your Internet presence, which has led others away from the Church.
So if I am reading this right, then just asking questions and seeking their answers through study and faith is thoroughly in bounds and according to this talk by President Uchtdorf, is even an encouraged activity. Having doubts or lack of certainty is likewise allowable, and not to be driven off or condemned, as I read in this talk by Elder Holland, which I suppose I already mentioned above. Where you will get into trouble is in making public, categorical statements designed to persuade others away from the Church after refusing to make adjustments when counseled by your leaders.
Apostasy refers to Church members who: “1, repeatedly act in clear, open and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders; or 2, persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority; or 3, continue to follow the teachings of apostate cults (such as those that advocate plural marriage) after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority.” (General Handbook of Instructions, 10-3.)
Another point that I want to make very clear for those in the situation that they have a number of beliefs that they think might be concerning to their leaders is that essentially no one who is disciplined for apostasy is disciplined without first being warned by their priesthood leaders that they have stepped over the line. Dehlin’s former Stake President spent what appears to be years visiting with him for an hour a week despite him clearly having heretical beliefs. Dehlin’s current Stake President, who did ultimately excommunicate him included this language in the letter in which he outlined his concerns, which I see as absolutely critical to understand. After outlining what the Stake President understood as the necessary steps of repentance, he writes,
I am asking for your absolute commitment to these steps—in both word and deed—these steps are essential for you to be able to center yourself in the gospel. I stand ready to assist you in this effort. If you choose to follow this counsel, I promise that you will feel increased light in your life and that the doubts you currently have will begin to dissipate. I also want you to know that I have been given the priesthood keys to help you and have prayed daily about this matter. I have not approached this lightly.
[….then slightly later…]
Please let me know whether you are willing to accept my counsel regarding the repentance process as outlined above if so then you should view yourself on informal probation as you move through the repentance process. We will need to meet often to review your progress. I commit to you my time my attention and my love as we do so.
What I want to bring out in this letter is that even after everything that John has done—and let’s not belabor the point, but the list is substantial—the Stake President still has as his principle focus helping John repent and come into full fellowship in the Church. If John is willing to repent, and begin to take the steps necessary to reconcile himself with God, and correct his relationship with the Church then he need receive no more official sanction than informal probation. His Stake President offers him love, hope, encouragement, and his embrace, as well as that of his Ward and Stake, and if not he offers him the next most loving thing, which is release from covenants that he is not willing to keep. But his invitation isn’t to leave, but to stay, and let love, faith and atonement do their work, until the clouds of this dark mortal glass begin to clear enough to admit the light.
To you who are reading this who were concerned about you being next on some list of undesirables, I’m going to say I think you probably aren’t because even this fellow whose discipline made you feel that way wasn’t undesired. John Dehlin, for all of his faults, was beloved, and out of that love was invited to repent. When he turned down that invitation, those who were responsible for caring for him spiritually did the next most loving thing because that was what was compatible with John’s agency. I expect that his Stake President, and a great many others are still praying for his well-being, and for him to receive all of the blessings that he is willing to, and waiting, with Christ, with open arms to receive him should he choose to return and repent.
I, at least, count myself in that category.