What Was, What Is, and What Will Be when Religion Limits Itself?

My name is Lisa Downing. I am a member of the Heath,Ward in the Heath, Texas Stake. I’m not an anonymous internet voice. I am a child of God, a convert to the great faith tradition encapsulated in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At my baptism at age 17 (some 40 years ago), I made a personal covenant with God—an extra one beyond those baptismal covenants outlined in the Book of Mormon—to always seek truth, light, and knowledge so that I can better honor and serve God and His purpose. Such a quest has no end yet is filled with new beginnings. It’s tiresome. Right now I’m tired. But my personal covenant requires something of me, something uncomfortable.

I find myself unable to validate through the gift of the Holy Ghost certain, limited statements made at Saturday morning’s General Conference, specifically remarks pertaining to truth in the address of Dallin Oaks.

These days, speaking up is becoming increasingly risky, and nothing feels more contrary to light of Christ than that. But the greater risk accompanies a denial of the Holy Ghost and so I will add my voice to that of Elder Oaks. Neither of us—none of us—can see God in any way other than through a dark glass, but perhaps, if I add what I have been given to see of the Divine, and if you add yours, the vision of God will come better into focus. Testimony is like a symphony. Each note alone has some small sound to convey, but only when all notes are joined do we understand the Great Composer.  

The problem for me, however, is that what I know—the note I sound—is in tension with what President Oaks advised. He opened his discourse by citing a scriptural passage that is one of my favorites. In fact, the last post I wrote pivoted on D&C 93: 24, which reads:

24 And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;

President Oaks follows it with two ideas. First, with the statement that what is commonly called the Proclamation is knowledge of what was, is, and will be. Second, he asserts in a round-about way that only those with the priesthood keys he holds are reliable sources of truth. He goes so far as to state:  “We should not consider secular prominence or authority as qualified sources of truth.” He holds this view while Joseph Smith clearly taught a differing concept:

“One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”  Joseph Smith, Jr.

As a young woman, no religious idea was more appealing to me than the one advocating seeking truth without fear, especially the fear of reprisal from church leaders.

And yet here I sit, feeling very much at odds at both an intellectual and spiritual level with the first counselor of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is no sweet way to say this: President Oaks uses D&C 93:24 to exalt himself and debase learning that God offers his children through non-religious sources.

Some will say, no, that’s not what he’s saying; he’s saying that, if a truth doesn’t align with the Proclamation, it isn’t true. Of course, for President Oaks, the gist of the Proclamation comes down to gender identity and heterosexual marriage. His moral stance on each issue derives from ancient scripture, steeped in long-discarded practices and prejudices that we now understand are dangerous to so many of God’s children. Men shouldn’t be bought and sold. Women shouldn’t be handed off to appease the sexual appetite of a mob. Homosexuals shouldn’t be stoned to death. And on and on.

Yet those who cling to the Proclamation—those who cry “A proclamation! A proclamation! We have got a proclamation and there cannot be any more proclamation!”—these people beg the question. They offer an answer which they prove by the very existence of the question in ancient scripture. President Oaks, a man well-trained in the art of argument, wants us to accept that his conclusions are God’s because men who lived thousands of years ago said they were. He tells us to dismiss current evidence because ancient teaching predates modern science, proving the point that truth is changeless.  If it boggles your mind, trust that.

President Oaks is part of a religious movement determined to define “secular” as “ungodly.” The man who coined the term, Jacob Holyoake self-identified as an agnostic—someone yet unsure of the existence of God, but not closed to the idea. He stated:

Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently [of church/religion], and act forever.

In other words, secularism is more rightly defined as a search for truth in ways that are separate from religious belief.  Holyoake’s social and political philosophy is complex and I’m not qualified to represent it in anything but a superficial way. President Oaks surely understands that a person of faith can learn truth through secular means. He practiced law; he judged. At issue, however, is whether or not President Oaks is open to avenues of learning that challenge his perceptions, or the perceptions of the ancients.  If he is not, he rejects a teaching of Joseph Smith.

To be honest, that, in itself, isn’t something I’ll hold against him. Joseph Smith was mortal and, like all of us, saw through the glass darkly. Our founder may have made mistakes, or been completely wrong about this or that, but the statement I quote above demonstrates a level of humility and love for truth that I don’t sense in what President Oaks said Saturday. Rather, it seems he may be grasping the iron rod so tightly that he is unwittingly fashioning from it his own prison bar.

Of course, this wouldn’t matter if President Oaks weren’t a man of position. And not just of position. Many faithful Latter-day Saints accept his words as if from God’s own mouth. I can’t know his heart, but Jesus taught us to recognize the good tree by the fruit it produces. Ignoring research by qualified people who have something to say other than what the Proclamation says is harming our LGBTQ community. If President Oaks feels he cannot change his message, he can certainly change his deliverance. He can certainly choose another message to deliver when he knows—knows!—his audience includes people at serious risk for depression and suicide. Mormons love to preach that offense is a choice and that the offended needs to forgive, but we don’t speak nearly enough about how offending is a choice that requires repentance and restitution.

I can’t judge President Oaks’ heart, but I can make an evaluation based on his words and behavior. I note how important it is to him to control other definitions: gender, marriage, family, womanhood, priesthood. His tight control of these definitions—his refusal to consider new light shed from anyplace other than his own tradition—suggests he has closed a window to heaven and placed limits on how God may reveal to his children the knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come. “What we know,” he stated Saturday morning, “will always trump what we do not know.”  He may not realize it, but he admits with that statement that he is satisfied to learn no more.

There can be more Proclamation. There must be. At present, parents are, increasingly, sending their children out of the room before President Oaks speaks because they recognize his rhetoric is dangerous, particularly for any of their children who may one day come out. This isn’t a lack of faith on their part. It happens because the spirit of God is sweeping our hearts clean and preparing the way for improved light and knowledge. Are we willing to hear, no matter whence truth comes?

This is the testimony that I, Lisa Downing, Internet Voice of No Worldly Esteem, leave with you, one borne with the authority of the Holy Ghost and gained as a burning of the bosom after a hard wrestle with God, after an earnest pursuit of knowledge through secular and religious venues, after insistent prayer: Our Heavenly Father wants to give us more light, and he will deliver it through any and all open windows, even if the expected ones are closed.

I don’t need a perfect knowledge to choose the better way. None of us do. What we need is the humility, faith, curiosity, and determination to discover the whole truth, untarnished by our tradition.

~ ~ ~

It is this endless compassion that allows us to more clearly see others for who they are. Through the lens of pure love, we see immortal beings of infinite potential and worth and beloved sons and daughters of Almighty God. Once we see through that lens, we cannot discount, disregard, or discriminate against anyone. Dieter Uchtdorf, Oct. 2018


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8 thoughts on “What Was, What Is, and What Will Be when Religion Limits Itself?

  1. Camsten

    That is a moving piece you have written. God bless you for wondering and searching. Many of us sense what you sense and notice what you notice. There is so much good in what was taught at General Conference – but addresses like Elder Oaks’ leave us scratching our collective heads.


  2. I love the fact that you, as a convert, have the ability actually evaluate what authorities say. Growing up, I was always taught that I had to accept whatever they say whether it was right or wrong (but it would never be wrong). Way to own your own spiritual journey!


    1. Thank you. I came from the great Catholic tradition and one of the things I was taught was that, unlike the Catholic church, the leaders of the LDS church were considered fallible. I thought that was great! It was a while before I realized how Mormons, in their constant press to do what’s right, melted into a body of people who relied on outward markers, including strict adherance to whatever falls out of a leader’s mouth. Nothing is more tragic to me than seeing people leave because the majority of active members judge whether or not a person is obeying God by their reaction to what, to be honest, are the whims of the humans leading the church.

      We see it so clearly with President Nelson. In April 1990, he spoke at General Conference about the name of the Church–just like this past conference–and 6 months later, Pres. Hinckley contradicted him at the GC pulpit. Now, RMN says Satan rejoices over the use of Mormon, a term Hinckley embraced and promoted, so RMN raised his hand to agree with all the Mormon marketing even though he apparently felt he was supporting Satan by doing so. Its nuts to elevate all they say to the level of the words of God. Its no wonder people leave, muttering “cult” under their breath. So lets be more honest about the human nature of our leaders. Maybe it’ll help them see themselves with more clarity. AND retain a few more of the people who leave because of our own cultural stupidity.

      Thanks for reading. Huh. I rather enjoyed writing this vent as a response. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Craig Morris

        I appreciate your comments, but to clarify for accuracy President Hinckley – Not Prophet at the time – never contradicted Russel M Nelson. In fact his exact words were “Six months ago in our conference Elder Russell M. Nelson delivered an excellent address on the correct name of the Church. He quoted the words of the Lord Himself:
        “Thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.””
        He went on to say the term Mormon has become too affixed to to the culture without regard to the real name and purpose of the Church. He said the word Mormon should mean “more good” but because of the slander of the world they have taken it away to mean something else.
        Please don’t use half truths to put forth an agenda.
        Truth will always be truth. The Church did not err in not giving the priesthood to those of African descent- but I would’ve loved to seen the revelation come earlier. Who can judge the timing of the Lord. Even when He is four days late – He is still on time. (Lazarus, Mary & Martha). To think that there will be some change to allow temple marriage to LBGTQ…is to make God a liar. This is not a matter of timing…it is a matter of truth.


        1. Hi Craig, thanks for providing your two cents. You’re correct that my word choice “contradict” is too strong. Its been some 10 months since I wrote this response in a moment of angst. I never mind correction when its warranted. However, its clear the two men, when each rose to the top position, enacted policies regarding the word “Mormon” that are contradictory. My word choice was lazy but its no more a half-truth (code for lie in my mind) than is your apparent disregard of the conflict between the approaches of these two leaders.

          I’ll also push back on you’re decrying me as “put[ting] forth an agenda” with half truths. “Agenda” is one of those words we try to pin on someone to discredit them, as if having an “agenda” means a person is inherently a puppet or has some sneaky ulterior motive. Based solely on your reply here (which admittedly is very little), you seem to have a doctrinaire agenda. And that’s fine. I get it. What you say here is a representation of your faith, made in the best way you know how to make it.

          But what I say in this blog post is, likewise, a representation of my faith, made in the best way I know how to make it. (Well, I try.) And it demonstrates quite plainly, I think, that I’m not beholden to anyone’s agenda but to the one I covenanted with my Heavenly Parents. As a practicing LDS, this blog is a risky undertaking that requires great faith and a willingness to be held accountable before God. Nowhere in any covenant I’ve made does it state I must forfeit the personal guidance of the Holy Ghost to men with position. So I don’t. I’m about as independent a religious thinker as any Mormon can be.

          I notice you made sure to separate the idea of Gordon B. Hinckley as an apostle and as a prophet. Fewer and fewer members do that these days, expecting members to treat all the apostles as prophets and bend their thinking and behavior to the views of these men. I reject that. But I also reject the idea that a president of the Church is always prophetic or consistent with God’s timeline. In fact, it looks to me like many of us have sacrificed the meaning of “prophetic,” trading it for a sense of false spiritual security won by obedience without divine conviction or confirmation.

          My agenda is to draw as close to God as I can. You may not find my way comfortable, but, in reality, that’s not of consequence to me. I wish you well and admire your willingness to speak your mind. We have this in common.


  3. vajra2

    The Bishop of Rome is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (from the Chair of Peter) about faith and morals. All else is his best estimate. Hence, in Catholic school I was taught evolution, human biology and reproduction, and literature. I was also taught history (especially Church history) is filled with sinners, charlatans, and villains, with the occasional good person thrown in that we not despair. In contemporary history only two infallible doctrines have been declared 1) the Immaculate Conception, and 2) the Assumption of Mary. While they have been made a matter of obedience to all Catholics, they were not new teachings: each had been held as tradition for more than a thousand years and were commonly held by both Roman and Orthodox Catholics. Martin Luther was a believer in the Immaculate Conception, and today some Lutherans and some Anglo-Catholics retain that belief.

    Liked by 1 person

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