In the past few years, there have been a large number of individuals in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church) who have experienced faith crises. Many have left their church and become ExMormon (or “ExMo”) for multiple reasons that people like John Dehlin have attempted to explain. Although many ExMos leave religion altogether, some investigate other faith traditions, including especially Unitarianism, Anglicanism, the UCC, and Community of Christ. To respond to the questions and needs of these religious seekers, Community of Christ has begun to develop a program called “Latter-day Seekers.”*
In my work with the seekers program, the most frequent initial objections I get from ExMos derive from an idea they have that all churches are fundamentally similar to the LDS Church and therefore that Community of Christ must be something like a liberal (or somehow Protestantish) version of the LDS Church. (The “Diet Pepsi” of the Restoration, if you will.)
This is very natural. While most ExMos have a lot of experience with one single church (the LDS Church), they don’t have a lot of experience with other churches. Among its characteristics, the LDS Church is a highly literalistic religion, which insists that much of scripture is history, that some visions are (or were) actual physical visitations, and the God and Jesus (along with some angelic personages) have literal, physical, perfected bodies. Further supplementing anyone’s view of religion beyond one’s own, information is drawn from sources like the news. And the loudest religions in news are also literalistic — from Evangelical Christians in American politics to Muslim fundamentalists in the Middle East — both of whom insist on authoritarian readings of scripture. Because of these data points, it’s no surprise that ExMos frequently extrapolate and assume that all religions are literalistic.
I felt this assumption was well illustrated in post I saw recently in an online ExMo discussion group. The post consisted of two images from the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz. The first image was of the throne room of Oz with its holographic head and pyrotechnics; the second was of the actual wizard operating the machinery behind the curtain.
The first image was captioned (something to the effect of) “how religious people view God,” while the second was captioned, “how non-religious people view God.”
I, myself, would argue that captions instead should read: “how an ex-member of a literalistic religion now sees their former beliefs,” and “how an ex-member of a literalistic religion now sees the world.” As I know from my own experience having left the LDS Church as a teenager,† when you are born with a narrative that you later deconstruct, the new narrative you create is one of deconstruction. While this can have value, your deconstruction narrative may still be grounded in the assumptions of the original narrative.
To illustrate, let me add a third image: a picture of Dorothy waking up in Kansas and realizing that Oz was a dream.
The Oz story was actually designed to be allegorical. The value of its teachings were never about whether the wizard literally had magic or was a humbug. The characters and the story are symbolic and — not to stretch this analogy too far, since we’re dealing in this case with entertainment — their actual value to us derives from whether these characters and stories help us to understand and live life more meaningfully. (And, in this particular instance, I agree that metaphors like “looking behind the curtain” remain valuable.)
To complete my analogy, I’d like to suggest that if your primary religious experience has been literalistic and you’ve experienced a faith crisis that has caused you to question all religion, if you decide now to take the time to examine Community of Christ, I think you may well discover something you’d previously have imagined was outside the bounds of religion as you’ve known it. Or, to put it less circuitously, you may find there’s more than one curtain to look behind.
* For more information about Latter-day Seekers visit retired Community of Christ apostle Dale Luffman’s Latter-daySeekers website. If you’re a seeker interested in investigating Community of Christ, please join my Latter-day Seekers facebook group.
† I was raised in the LDS Church and left as a teenager, having neither served a mission nor gone through the temple. Many years later I began to study Restoration history and joined Community of Christ. Much more of my story is available in my Mormon Stories interview with John Dehlin.