Beyond the Walls, Sunday, January 16, 2022.
Hello everyone! My name is Evan Sharley. I was raised in a fairly religious household, but after a dramatic faith crisis I became a “none” for quite a while. No, I don’t mean a Catholic nun, I mean someone who isn’t religiously affiliated - when asked what religion I belonged to I responded by saying “none”.
“Nones” have been a growing religious trend. In 2007 the Pew Research Center found that roughly 16% of Americans identified as “None”. However, just 15 years later, they found that that number has doubled with 30% of adults not being religiously affiliated. 78% of these “nones” were raised to be religiously affiliated. In other words, there is a mass exodus away from religious organizations occurring right now.
Our family and friends aren’t leaving for no reason, either. During its surveys, Pew Research Center also was able to identify trends about why people are not religiously affiliated anymore. An astounding 60% said that they question religious teachings! Religious organizations have failed the “Nones” by discouraging spiritual exploration and innovation. If today’s churches and religious traditions want to survive, they must adapt to meet contemporary spiritual needs. If they decline to do so, they will have selected themselves for extinction. While our church has also not been immune to these trends, I believe that if we put in the work to grow, that our history and theology is uniquely poised to stand out in the religious landscape.
Much of my studies this past year have focused on learning the history of our church, because I am a strong believer that if we want to understand our future, we have to understand our present, and thus also our past.
Our church has always been a group of people who dissent and question. I would argue that this is one of the things that our tradition is founded upon. The founders of our church had a variety of Christian backgrounds, such as Methodists, Campbellites, Presbyterians, Shakers, and even people who practiced folk magic. They were dissatisfied with the traditions that they had been previously associated with, and felt called to explore spiritually in some unconventional ways.
Joining our church didn’t mean you all of a sudden had all the answers, though; in fact, we still had a huge amount of questions! After asking those difficult questions, over time we got some answers. For many people some of those answers were controversial, while for others they were a god-send! In the end, on August 17, 1835 we canonized these answers and called it “The Doctrine and Covenants”, which is one of our unique books of scripture.
When Joseph Smith III became the president of our church in 1860 he provided a lot of guidance, but we again did not suddenly have all the answers under his leadership. In the 1870s we began to reconsider what exactly we consider scripture, and which books are authoritative. In 1878 we passed Resolution 215, which reaffirmed that our “Standard of Authority” was the Bible, The Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. However, many people didn’t feel the same affinity for some of the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants as they did the Bible or the Book of Mormon. We were in an interesting position. We needed to define who we would be moving forward, but we also needed room for dissent. This balance was struck the next year, 1879, with Resolution 222. This compromise, in short, stated that the church would not put you in an ethical position to sacrifice your personal integrity and force you to say that you believe something when you didn’t. This went as far as to include scripture.
The late 1960s in our church was true to the era and was quite the trip for a number of people! Many people started exploring new narratives regarding our theology and history as theologians and historians began to learn more. Disagreements regarding these topics began to be so heated in the church that it became clear that we needed some ground rules for discussing these topics. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s our church reaffirmed the right of folks to spiritually explore, and we were taught not to attempt to destroy the reputation of those with whom we had disagreements with. We were encouraged to recognize the worth and dignity of our family and friends through multiple D&C sections and statements from the First Presidency and the Standing High Council. If we disagree, we should do so ethically.
We, again, reaffirmed our right to question things in 2013 with the “Faithful Disagreement Policy”. Truthfully, this policy was one of the things that attracted me to Community of Christ, and is a particularly powerful summary of our tradition’s historical relationship with dissent. I Won’t read all of it, but I would like to read a couple of the principles espoused in it:
3. Holding a differing view from the Community of Christ position on a specific matter does not lessen in any way a person’s participation as a faithful, generous, committed, and responsible disciple. Nor does having a differing view impact a person’s eligibility to hold a priesthood office or partake in the sacraments.
4. A person with a differing viewpoint on a particular position is to be respected by the body. She or he may share a viewpoint as a personal opinion during discussions, meetings, training, and other conversations where it is suitable to share personal opinions.
10. In seeking to create genuine signal communities, we listen respectfully to one another’s viewpoints. In addition, we try to see from each other’s perspective. We trust in each person’s commitment to Christ and motivation to see the mission of Community of Christ flourish. We seek to celebrate our unity while learning from our diversity.
In every generation and era of our church there have been people who question things. They have been the people who have helped us define who we are, what we believe, and in what ways we need to grow. When 60% of “Nones” say that they aren't religiously affiliated because they question religious teachings, we should consider how our time-honored tradition of dissent could help people who long for community, but don’t exactly “fit the mold”.
The faith community I grew up in seemed to function smoothly on the surface. However, even in the face of important and difficult issues that needed to be discussed we were encouraged to avoid conflict, sometimes with the threat of punishment if we failed to comply. This manifested in us withholding truths about ourselves, which also in turn crushed individuality, intimacy, and honesty. Eventually I disassociated myself with all of religion because of this negative experience.
During my time as a “None” I longed for a community where I could have conversations about those important and difficult issues without the fear of being silenced. I longed for a community which would celebrate my individuality instead of intimidating me into conformity. I longed for a community in which I could share my life, with all of its failures and triumphs. I longed for a quiet peace, where I would be listened to as I shared the most vulnerable parts of my soul, and in turn received love.
Since 60% of “Nones” say that they aren't religiously affiliated because they question religious teachings, it shows that communities like ours are rare. I believe they are rare because it takes concerted effort to transform communities, and many aren’t up to the task. However, nearly 22 years ago we received this following counsel in Doctrine and Covenants 161:3:
“Open your hearts and feel the yearnings of your brothers and sisters who are lonely, despised, fearful, neglected, unloved. Reach out in understanding, clasp their hands, and invite all to share in the blessings of community created in the name of the One who suffered on behalf of all.
Do not be fearful of one another. Respect each life journey, even in its brokenness and uncertainty, for each person has walked alone at times. Be ready to listen and slow to criticize, lest judgments be unrighteous and unredemptive.
Be patient with one another, for creating sacred community is arduous and even painful. But it is to loving community such as this that each is called. Be courageous and visionary, believing in the power of just a few vibrant witnesses to transform the world. Be assured that love will overcome the voices of fear, division, and deceit.
Understand that the road to transformation travels both inward and outward. The road to transformation is the path of the disciple.”
Many people believe that the “Nones” are disconnected from all things spirituality, however, a 2012 survey actually implies the opposite. Two-thirds of “Nones” say that they believe in God (68%), more than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. I feel the disconnect truly lies in a miscommunication about how people live out their spiritual lives, which often leaves people feeling alienated and isolated. One thing may be a source of spiritual fulfillment for one person, but for another may be a source of spiritual dread. In an attempt to understand those around me, I took some time and created a list of the different ways I see people experience spirituality, revelation, or God - I call it "The Six Sources of Revelation." I would like to take some time to explain what I have found over the years.
The first source of revelation would be “Personal Revelation”, which I would argue is the most important source. This source emphasizes your personal responsibility to uncover light and truth! As you journey along life's path, you sift through ideas and beliefs, and take with you those which sing of a transcendent goodness. There may come a time when you receive further light and truth which seems contrary to previous revelation. This is completely ok because life is about learning, changing, and growing. It’s good to change your opinion based on new information. To paraphrase D&C 161:5, "Remember that instruction given in former years is applicable in principle and must be measured against your needs as you continue to grow."
The second source of revelation are teachers, mentors, or friends. Life is a very difficult journey for all of us, but having someone that you trust to give you wise counsel makes this journey much easier to navigate. Those whom we seek guidance from can have many different titles and can include family, friends, or members of the priesthood.
The third source of revelation is "Community". Talking with and serving others exposes us to different points of view, which allows us to either improve or replace our own viewpoints. This work of growth inevitably also helps build connections with other people. These communities can take place in formal settings, such as institutional churches, or even simply among a group of close friends. However, one of the appealing aspects of a formalized community is the history and tradition that comes along with it. In Community of Christ I am not only connected to people who lived in my community 100 years ago, but I am connected to those who will live 100 years from now.
The fourth source of revelation is "Scripture". In Community of Christ we recognize scriptures as a library of books that speak in many voices and were written in diverse times and places, and reflect the languages, cultures, and conditions under which they were written. These stories are an indispensable witness of God's transformative message. While these stories are important to us, we also recognize that they are not inerrant and that we must responsibly interpret them.
The fifth source of revelation is "tools". The Buddha once said to imagine someone is trying to show you the moon by pointing at it. The pointing finger is what points you to the moon. Without the finger, you might not notice the moon. But the pointing finger isn't what matters most. The same is true with spiritual tools. Consecrated oil, jewelry, art, music, certain foods, and even specific places like the temples are examples of spiritual tools in our tradition, but they are all just fingers that point you to the moon.
The sixth and final source of revelation is "Ritual". Simply put, rituals are formalized and symbolic actions that are based in tradition. They often mark a milestone in life, symbolize a commitment, give advice or comfort, or convey a desire for things to change. In Community of Christ we have an official list of rituals which we call "Sacraments", which include the blessing of children, baptism, confirmation, communion, laying on of hands, evangelist's blessing, ordination, and marriage.
Christ's ministry was marked by creating a healing spiritual community for those who were marginalized by the religious institutions of his day. We are called to emulate Christ. Today 30% of adults are not religiously affiliated, and 60% of them are citing the fact that they have not been allowed to question religious teachings.
We as a church have a time-honored tradition of questioning religious norms. We value it so much that our book of scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, represents our journey to find answers. We should be courageous and visionary and welcome those who question religious teachings of today with open arms, because these are the people who may be the few vibrant witnesses who transform the world.
We should recognize that there is a great spiritual diversity among us. For example, I personally have a great affinity for the Book of Mormon, while many others have an aversion to it. I don't need others to find fulfillment in the same ways that I do in order to validate my own experiences. Instead, I would rather hear others speak about the source of revelation which sings of a transcendent goodness to them.
This diversity of thought and experience strengthens our community, and allows us to more fully cater to the spiritual needs of our family and friends.
I would like to leave you with the admonition which is found in Doctrine and Covenants 149:5:
“My servants ... are commended for their diligence in seeking more light and truth from all available sources. For have I not told you that my glory is intelligence and he that seeketh learning by study and by faith will be rewarded in this life and the life to come? Your efforts to find ways to more successfully implement the goals of my church must be continued.”