First consider the following:
You are approached by someone who is clearly in a desperate situation. This person begs for your help. What do you do?
Could you easily help them without any great personal sacrifice? What if in helping this person your own well-being or that of your loved ones is compromised? What do you do if you know the person begging for your help bears full responsibility for his desperate situation? Do you help this person anyway—knowing that in the future he might do things that will again bring him to another desperate situation?
How you respond to this person’s plea for help will not only affect him. It will also reveal something essential about you—about your values and ethics; your relationship with others generally; your views on human nature; your ideas regarding justice; your emotional makeup and the content of your character.
To find one’s self in this sort of situation is to come face to face with many of life’s biggest questions. It is to find one’s self in that place where one’s ideas of right and wrong are challenged—where they must be put into practice or discarded. If one believes in God, this is the sort of situation in which one might contemplate the will of God and the relationship of God to the human race. If one is not religiously inclined, this situation could nevertheless cause one to contemplate one’s place in society and the duty—if any—that citizens owe one another.
Now consider the following:
On this past Tuesday (February 1, 2015), John Dehlin—the creator of the hugely popular and socially impactful podcast “Mormon Stories”—was excommunicated for apostasy from the LDS Church—Mormonism’s largest denomination. The decision by John’s local LDS Priesthood authorities to excommunicate him for apostasy was unanimous. In the official LDS Church statement regarding the nature of John’s so-called apostasy, these LDS Priesthood authorities cited John’s statements that “The Book of Mormon” and “The Book of Abraham” — part of the LDS canon of scripture — are fraudulent and works of fiction.
The LDS Church teaches that “The Book of Mormon” is a divinely given, literal translation of ancient American writings that had been engraved on gold plates prior to 425 AD. The LDS Church teaches that Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, was led by an angel to a spot on a hillside in New York State where ancient American prophets—themselves descendants of earlier Jewish refugees from Jerusalem—had buried the book in the fifth century AD. The LDS Church teaches that “The Book of Mormon” contains a thousand year history of two great ancient American peoples who were the descendants of ancient Israelites. It also teaches that some of these ancient Israelites were the actual ancestors of some Native Americans.
A great part of John’s so-called apostasy is that he accepts the findings of traditional mainstream archeology—which asserts that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of the two great cultures which makeup the central plot of “The Book of Mormon.”
John also accepts the findings of research in Native American DNA. There is no DNA evidence of a link between Native Americans and the population of ancient Palestine.
John has also studied early Mormon documents, accounts by Joseph Smith’s contemporaries—both Mormon and non-Mormons; he has explored the history of American society and American religion in the early 19th century—and all of this study has convinced him that “The Book of Mormon” is not an ancient American historical document but an early 19th century American work of religious fiction.
Because John not only came to these conclusions but broadcast and discussed them publicly in “Mormon Stories Podcasts,” the LDS Church has labeled him an apostate and has excommunicated him from their organization.
HOW ARE THESE TWO THNGS—John Dehlin’s excommunication from the LDS Church from apostasy, and having someone in a dire situation begging your help—RELATED?
“The Book of Mormon” contains an account of an ancient American king of Jewish ancestry named Benjamin who, shortly before his death (supposedly in the late second century B.C.), preached a great sermon to his people, regarding their relationship with God and their duties to their fellow human beings. In this sermon, King Benjamin taught the following regarding helping others in dire situations:
“…ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
“Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
“But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this, the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
“For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
“And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.”
(Mosiah 4: 16—21)
Now whether one accepts King Benjamin’s reasoning or not, one must admit that he puts forth very succinct, very clear principles that one could consider when one is approached for help by another in a dire situation. Rejecting King Benjamin’s principles or acting upon them will reveal much about the content of one’s character and how one views his or her relationship to the human family.
One is approached by someone in need; one must decide how to respond that person’s cry for help; in deciding how to respond, one considers King Benjamin’s principles; one makes a decision and acts upon it; one’s actions reveal much about one’s character and one’s spiritual and ethical state at that time.
Notice the one thing absent from all of this—the one thing that is completely unimportant. It is this question: Was King Benjamin a real person who lived in ancient America, or is he a completely fictional character created in the 1820’s by Joseph Smith?
In the end the answer either way is completely irrelevant to the actual situation at hand: how does one respond to another’s plea for help.
In the context of ethics, of personal spiritual progression, of human relationships, of how one envisions his or her relationship to God—how one responds to a beggar’s plea for help is of immeasurable importance. The role that King Benjamin’s principles play in that response are much more important as far as one’s relationship with “The Book of Mormon” is concerned that one’s beliefs regarding the historicity of either the book and King Benjamin.
If an international religious organization like the LDS Church continues the Dark Ages tradition of excommunicating members for apostasy, it might consider using the principles found in their scriptures as the basis for those actions rather than beliefs and opinions regarding the historicity of those scriptures.
But like so many orthodox, fundamentalist or literalist religious organizations, the LDS Church does not teach a religion that is based primarily on principles. Instead it teaches a religion that is first and foremost a religion ABOUT a set of scriptures and ABOUT the LDS Church itself. One believes without doubting and without any public questioning the things that the LDS Church claims about itself and what it claims about its scriptures. To not believe and to publically question is to court excommunication and the label of “apostate.”
Reform Mormonism is a religion that is first and foremost about principles.
When a Reform Mormon is approached by one in need, considering King Benjamin’s principles is much more important than believing that the king was an actual historical figure. Likewise, Reform Mormons might draw upon the principles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament Sermon on the Mount and in “The Book of Mormon’s” sermon at the Nephite temple. Whether the historical Jesus actually stood atop a Judean mount and taught those principles—or whether he actually appeared in ancient America after a resurrection from the dead and taught them—is of no importance.
Reform Mormonism is a religion centered upon one’s quest to develop within one’s own character the virtues and attributes that one envisions God possessing. Reform Mormonism teaches that all human beings—by virtue of their humanity—exist in the form and likeness of the Divine, and thus they have within themselves a potential for Divinity.
Through the living of our lives, through the use of our individual agency, through the manner in which we interact with others and encounter adversity, through the degree in which we engage our intellects and emotions, through the manner in which we navigate our way through the complexities of life---through all of these things we are either developing Godliness within ourselves or we are not.
An orthodox religion that is primarily ABOUT the Bible, “The Book of Mormon,” Jesus or Joseph Smith is simply of no practical use or great importance in this process; thus it has no place in Reform Mormonism.
To label someone as “devout” or as an “apostate” regarding such things is meaningless. One could accept orthodox theologies regarding the scripture, Jesus and Joseph Smith; one could eloquently defend that orthodoxy from all attacks and by that same eloquence convert others to that orthodox faith. And yet those orthodox ideas in and of themselves alone are meaningless in developing a Godly character. Orthodoxy does not equal Godliness.
If one reads “The Book of Mormon” with clear eyes, one might see that such a principle is central to the book’s message.
That message is worth considering even if the book is a work of 19th century American religious fiction.
That message is central to Reform Mormonism—which is an “excommunication-free zone,” in which doubts, hard questions, unorthodox beliefs and a diversity of opinions are not only welcomed, but regarded as essential in the Eternal Progression of the human family.