On the Excommunication of Bill Reel, the Heterodox Testimony, and the Lessons of Alma

Another stoning has occurred in this week’s excommunication of Bill Reel, the creator of the Mormon Discussions podcast. The violence of his excommunication has me in mourning, not half so much because he’s lost something as because the Church I love has forfeited something—someone—of value. Brother Reel is a modern-day Mormon enigma, a human symbol of a Church in turmoil, and the action of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which will soon have the approval of the First Presidency) is evidence of its dysfunction.

If you aren’t familiar with his work, it’s easily accessible. For the sake of summary, I’d describe his faith growth as a typical transition. He converted as a late teen, bringing, as he says, beauty into his life. At 29, he became a bishop, and his pastoral efforts introduced him to the conflicts between the narrative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and historical/doctrinal realities. In time, Reel created a public forum that aspired to help members in faith transition remain reconciled with the Church. Of late (and particularly since the enactment of the November 2015 policies on the treatment LGBTQ members), his emphasis has shifted toward one that simply helps others deal in healthy and safe ways with their connection to both Mormonism and LDS peers.

Brother Reel faced excommunication for apostasy. Like Sam Young, who asked the Bill Reel X ltrBrethren to end one-on-one, closed-door interviews with minors, Bill Reel is publicly asking them for improved transparency. He has directly called out specific apostles for purposeful misrepresentation of facts, which apparently was enough to trigger the terminal choke-hold on his membership. What has my attention today, however, is something else for which he asks, specifically that the formal Church make room for, rather than purge, people with heterodox testimonies.

You can access the recording and transcript of his Disciplinary Council and find Reel’s testimony of, for instance, the Book of Mormon and Jesus Christ. In essence, he accepts the Book of Mormon as scripture but maintains the caveat that it is not a historical document, in a literal sense. Of Jesus, he says he does not know that Jesus ascended on the third day, but, because he has “been effected by both his mercy and grace,” he has “a testimony of Jesus on some level.” He says, “I can’t ascribe to knowing; I can’t ascribe to even probably believing, but I can say I hope.”

What I quote here is, of course, removed from its original context and can’t sufficiently describe the complexity of his testimony. However, it’s enough to demonstrate that his testimony isn’t the standard “I know Jesus is my Savior and that the Church is true.”

The cultural penchant to proclaim we know when we don’t—and cannot—is celebrated even though Alma, a Book of Mormon prophet of great import, makes two things clear: 1) faith is hope, not perfect knowledge (Alma 32:21), and 2) knowledge eliminates faith (Alma 32:17,18). In other words, Bill Reel’s expression of hope is an appropriate—and legitimate—testimony. It holds no puffery. Yet it appears his local authorities see his hope as a falling away from knowledge rather than as part of a progression toward it. What so many practicing LDS don’t reckon with is Alma’s clear teaching that their “I know” testimonies are a limitation set on their practice of faith.

Bill Reel was excommunicated for apostasy, not an inappropriate testimony, but the judgement of apostasy is directly related to his pursuit of knowledge; hence, they walk hand-in-hand.  This excommunication rejects heterodoxy and the non-traditional testimony. This is pertinent because, in purging a heterodox member, in deciding his testimony and the actions it requires of him, Reel’s stake president is acting contrary to what the keystone of his religion teaches about testimony, though probably without realizing he it.

How so?

Alma 32 may be the most misunderstood passage in the LDS canon because we bring to it our culturally affirmed idea that testimony is knowledge. However, the gist of Alma’s seed story is that you can’t know a seed is good until it sprouts. Then your understanding that it is, in fact, a good seed shifts from one of hope to knowledge. He then speaks of the faith required to nourish the tree until it brings forth fruit. By extension, we realize we cannot know the tree will bear fruit until it does. Only after tasting the fruit can we know it is delicious. Until something happens, or we experience it, we do not have perfect knowledge. Therefore, we cannot know Jesus is our savior until he saves us.

To this, most practicing LDS will argue, “But Alma is talking about perfect knowledge. You can have knowledge without it being perfect.” But no. Alma never so much as hints at that. He says the opposite. He calls your “imperfect knowledge” hope, belief, and faith; never does he call it knowledge, perfect or otherwise. Alma is correcting the false notion that knowledge can be something other than the completed picture, or perfection. He is calling us to implement faith as a means to knowledge, but he is not equating faith with knowledge.

Faith is an assumption of a final result, and an assumption is nothing more or less than a hypothesis. I’ll grant you we might be able to justifiably call the assumption that one tree will produce a certain fruit imperfect knowledge if we’ve experienced similar trees producing that fruit. But we cannot justifiably assume Jesus will forgive, resurrect, and glorify us based on our past experience with another savior figure. There hasn’t been one. Imperfect knowledge, as exemplified in my Similar Tree analogy, remains hope that our assumption is correct. It is, therefore, not knowledge at all, but hope disguised as such.

Furthermore, Alma 32:35 establishes that knowledge is discernible—visible, obvious, apparent, noticeable, and distinct. Knowledge is not the feeling of warmth or contentedness that LDS are trained to accept as knowledge. People sometimes say the rational mind cannot know God, that God is known only through our spiritual nature, but Alma is teaching us that our rational mind leads us to knowledge of God, that what we experience and evaluate (e.g. the seed sprouted; therefore, it is good) is very much a part of our divine nature.

We will not know God without the rational mind and, I propose, we won’t understand Him without human emotion. The two together are the check and balance people need to progress toward being perfect even as our Father in Heaven. If we subject one to the other, rather than training the mind and heart to work in harmony, we forfeit integrity. And when we forfeit integrity, we remove ourselves from the process of enlightenment advocated by Alma.

Desire (emotion) and assumption (faith) can become catalysts to knowledge, but they are not a testimony of what is. To proclaim them as such is a contradiction of Alma’s teaching, no matter how entrenched the misinterpretation has become in our religious culture. Living this out is precisely what a faith transition is. If the formal Church rejects people who have the faith and courage to seek perfect knowledge, it will die. Or rather, it will be yanked from the ground because the roots have not been nurtured and no longer have hold.

Like Bill Reel, I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in my late teens. One of my guiding principles has been the early LDS teaching that our ultimate goal is the attainment of perfect knowledge. I’ve been both blessed in my efforts to live up to that and challenged in ways I hadn’t anticipated. The growth in my testimony is necessarily heterodox, and yet I know it is good in the same way Alma knows the process of growth is positive when he sees the result unfold. I hope perfect knowledge is possible in the hereafter. In the meantime, I know my heterodoxy, which is different from Brother Reel’s in some respects, is aligning me more and more with the God I aspire to emulate. There is salvation in that.  But is there a place for people me in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

In Alma’s story, the wealthy bar the poor from the synagogue they had built with their own hands, judging them too dirty—too messy—to be with them in worship. Yet, to the condemnation of those who ejected them, the poor discover they don’t need the synagogue to have a relationship with God. Today’s Church would do well to remember that those who have helped build it—men like Bill Reel—are not its enemies because their testimonies are messy. Humility is rarely clean-cut.

~  ~ ~

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. (Matthew 7: 7, 8) 

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3 thoughts on “On the Excommunication of Bill Reel, the Heterodox Testimony, and the Lessons of Alma

  1. Robert Osborn

    Bill Reel was excommunicated because he was slandering church leadership and helping others to side with him in losing their faith from the church. His loss of testimony was the result of years of defiant opposition to church leadership. He went on to publicly mock God’s annointed prophets and was using his position in his podcasts to help others transition away from the church.
    Let’s gets facts correct.

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    1. Hi Robert. I know many people feel as you do. However, to fit the definition of slander against a public figure (which Elder Holland definitely is), the actions one takes must include deliberate and dishonest misrepresentation in order to cause harm to that public figure, usually monetary harm. There really is no question that facts are in evidence that Elder Holland has a history of misrepresenting things and that Reel has a history of asking him to straighten out the record.

      Calling the episode on Holland “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” was a poor choice and does smack of mocking. That’s not enough for excommunication.

      As far as a loss of testimony goes, I’d say no one can lose a testimony of things that are untrue because you can’t have a testimony of things that aren’t true; and/OR the things that one “loses a testimony of” are things one didn’t truly know in the first place. Think of Alma’s story, which teaches that we can’t know a seed is good until we see it sprout. Many of us claim to know things that we can’t. “I know Jesus is my savior” is an improper statement in light of what Alma teaches.

      What happens is that people like Bill Reel face the reality that they don’t know and they admit it. They correct their language, which demonstrates an increase in character, not a decrease. And yet those who misuse Alma’s teaching, claiming to know what the Book of Mormon prophet says they cannot know, proceed with accusations of falling away, or loss of testimony. Its backwards.

      This is why people in “faith transition” often say they feel closer to God–because they develop more honesty about their relationship with God or because they open themselves to ideas about the divine that were closed while they lived under the conviction that they already knew x, y, or z. Its the same crime exhibited by those who would cry, “A Bible! A Bible! We’ve got a Bible and have no need of more Bible!”

      Sometimes transitioning people realize they truly don’t know that God exists, and they begin calling themselves agnostic because that’s the word assigned to such a state. But if not knowing God exists, or not knowing his nature, makes one an apostate, we are all apostate.

      I will remain troubled that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can’t be magnanimous toward people who obviously want to discover truth, even if that quest appears disarming to the Church leadership. Its not hard to behave with kindness. With each of these excommunications, the Church shoots itself in the foot–and then asserts it is the excommunicant who is doing the Church harm. Other religions don’t behave this way. You know who behaves this way? Despotic governmental leaders. I’m sitting with that, you know? Its right in front me and I’m sitting with it, wondering if it’ll snap out of it or not.

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      1. Robert Osborn

        I disagree on several points. I’ve known Bill for quite a few years. Me and Bill would debate various things back and forth. I knew 5 years ago that Bill was falling away from the church and on the road to apostasy. I called it then that he would become apostate. One loses ahold of the truth one small step at a time. It is so gradual that the mind convinces itself, or loses sight of the fact, that it never had it in the first place. I have watched people in my own ward who were strong in the gospel lose that fire and testimony and become bitter antis. I talk to them now and they are convinced they never had any fire or passion. And yet I witnessed they did. That’s how the mind works, it’s a unique phenomenon. The scriptures speak of this very fact. In Alma it speaks of having the truth fade until they are taken captive by the devil and know nothing concerning the mysteries of God-

        11 And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell. (Alma 12:11)

        That loss of truth is where Bill is. I have watched his testimony wayn over the years until now he has none left. The only thing he has now is the devil’s pacification. The fruits of that though chain one down. They become filled with hate, choose sin, and ultimately come to hate God.

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