Special Dialogue Podcast: "Spirit of Dialogue" Conference Session 7

October 19, 2016

These special Dialogue podcasts, released in honor of our Dialogue Jubilee on September 30, has writers, thinkers, scholars, historians, advocates, editors and leaders presenting their ideas on what has made Dialogue strong in the past 50 years and what will continue it’s legacy in the coming decades. In this final session, Marlin Jensen and Greg Prince dialogue about “The Future of Faith.”

Session 7 presenters featured:


Marlin Jensen

Emeritus Seventy and Church Historian and Recorder


Greg Prince



Greg Prince: I don’t need to give you an introduction about Marlin and I don’t deserve one, so that saves a lot of time. One of our intersections was about a decade ago when both of us were participants in a PBS documentary titled “The Mormons.” I presume many of you saw that. It was a 4-hour presentation that was a joint effort by “American Experience” and “Frontline.” Near the end of the pre-screening of it, the producer Helen Whitney called me and she said “I’ve interviewed about 800 members of your church in the course of doing this. You have a good church. Your people need to own it. They are borrowing their religion. And so I’d like to really use that one of our starting points of this discussion. How do you own your religion? And I agree with her completely, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see that people take it on borrowed word from somebody else rather than owning and particularly in the last three or four years as we have seen the power of the internet to disseminate data, we can see the effect on people who have borrowed and not owned. The other thing I’d like to put into the equation, both from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians about gifts of the spirit and a similar discourse in Doctrine and Covenants Section 46 where it says “to some it is given to know and to some it is given to believe on the words of others” because I think that brackets the two ends of this spectrum of faith versus intellect. So Marlin maybe we can just start and have your comment on that notion of owning your religion and what does that mean and how do you get there? Or what are the various ways of getting there?
Marlin Jensen: Well good afternoon. You’ve heard of people being out of their element. You are looking at one. I agreed to this because I love the people that I know that are affiliated with Dialogue. So I’m grateful to be here and I’m especially grateful to be Greg’s companion. And he was kind enough to ask me before we began if I should be “Elder Jensen” or “Marlin.” And it’s been kind of nice these last four years to return to my original name. So I’m happy to be here on that basis and especially with Greg. You know it’s interesting, I’m sure it wasn’t coincidental that we weren’t able to come to your earlier sessions today because a dear friend of ours passed away in Ogden Valley where we live. And we went to the funeral and we are so glad we did because it was such what I”d call “a thin veil” experience and reaffirmed to me personally my own conviction, which I do own, that life is eternal and love is eternal and families are eternal. And so I’m very happy to engage in a conversation about faith and intellect because I have been saddened, as I am sure most of you have, in recent years as many of our most devout Latter-day Saints have stumbled in their faith and began to doubt and to let those doubts become so overwhelming that they go into what I term a spiritual free fall where they lose all their moorings and are able to dismiss all the spiritual impressions and expressions they may have had over the years. And in some cases have given themselves over to a rather riotous life, which just is sometimes stunning by the distinction between what they once were or appeared to be and what they now are. So I have to admit that I’m not an intellectual. I’ve often joked that I’m not smart enough to go into intellectual apostasy. You have to be really smart I think to do that. I’m rather grateful honestly, that I was born with a rather simple faith. It is a gift, it is a spiritual gift and I suppose if you are given it as one of your spiritual gifts, you are a very fortunate person. But if you weren’t, I think there is a way to earn faith, to choose to believe. And in this life, we will always need to walk by faith essentially. No matter how bright we are, no matter how much we can perceive with the intellect God has given us, there will always be a veil drawn on our life before this life and largely a veil drawn on our life after this life. And we’re in this center act living by faith but our intellect does play a role in our faith and in our human behavior. In addition to the scripture that Greg referred to, in the 46th section, I’ve always loved Section 8, in the first verse or two there, it speaks to what the Lord describes as the “Spirit of Revelation” and that spirit is defined by Him as as He speaking to our heart and to our mind. So I think all of us in acquiring conviction regarding our religion can rely on the fact that some of that conviction can come through intellectual means but some of it must come through our heart as well. For as Paul says, “what man knowth the things of the man, save the spirit of man that it is in him, even so knowth no man the things of God but the spirit of God.” So when we talk about our personal epistemologies and how we’ve come to know, I think there is a certain amount of head and there’s a certain of heart. And I think we can reach a certain amount of conviction where we can stand on our own spiritual feet. So I’ll start with that much Greg. I hope that’s responsive to what you said.
Greg Prince: That’s a great start. I think it was three years ago that the first essays were posted. Does that sound right? It was in the fall of 2013. And it was in September, so just a couple of months prior to that posting that I was in Logan and and prior to the event there was a little banquet and I sat next to Elder Snow who had succeeded Marlin as the Church Historian. And he said “we hope next week to have approval from the Twelve for the first of those essays to be posted.” And I said “Congratulations, now how are you going to deploy them?” And he said “Yes, tell me about it.” Because he realized what the problem was and I think it goes to the core of what we’re talking about here. That even though you can’t cleanly bifurcate the church, you can talk about two distinct clusters within the church: one that has been given the gift of faith and may not want to be bothered with the facts and seems to be doing quite well without having those facts. And the other who needs the facts and without them is in danger of bailing. And at that point he wasn’t sure how they were going to deploy those essays. Now what they wound up doing was I think a very reasonable compromise between those two groups and that was to post them but to bury them deeply enough in the website that the first group wouldn’t stumble on them by accident because the same information that helps the second group has the chance of blowing up the the first group. And that’s an ongoing dilemma we have in the church because we have people at all points along this spectrum from those who are willing to say “just tell me what to believe, I’m fine with it” and they can negotiate their entire lives quite successfully without going into the data versus this end, which is the mirror image of that. What do we do then? Because in the past, in the pre-internet era we weren’t giving multiple options to church members. We gave them a pretty much one-size-fits-all. Is that an oversimplification?
Marlin Jensen: No. Now whether this was by design or just how it came out, I’m not sure but I think that this is a great day actually, and these essays are part of the evidence for that. And I know how to deploy it was always the largest question we had. No one wanted to create a website where you could read 35 of the most difficult issues about Mormonism. So I was gone before they figured out how to do this. But I appreciate how it has come out. And its sort of oozed out in a way that hasn’t created a sensation and yet it’s provided the best responses that the church has to give to many of these difficult issues. It’s a great sign that there’s a recognition that even if you have the gift of faith, you may have curiosity, you may have a desire to dig deeper, to know more. I’ve often thought that because we do need to live by faith here, the Book of Mormon for instance, is never going to be proven by archaeology or history or DNA studies, because the Book of Mormon will always need to remain a matter of faith. Our conviction in that book will always need to be gained, I think, through the gift and power of the Holy Ghost, which is the way we can learn the truth of all things. But I think Greg, be that as it is, a flowering of knowledge about Book of Mormon issues that will make it more conducive to believe if we’re open to that. It will never be provable, but it will make it easier, I think in the long run. Choosing to believe is by far the most important choice we ever make in this life. Right next to it, I think, is choosing the person we marry. But choosing to believe, choosing to make Mormonism our way of life, and in making that choice, I think we’ll always be weighing the evidence for it’s truthfulness. That’s how I think testimonies come about is that we do weigh and look at “on the one hand and on the other” – Tevye. But at least in my own case, Greg, and I think the Church is trying to help with this with this in the form of these essays and with it’s openness now almost all the historical information we have. You’ve seen the latest Joseph Smith Papers volume on the Council of Fifty minutes. I mean I think that is the last thing the Church would ever release just because it was so unknown and shrouded in mystery. But to bring it out properly contextualized and annotated. It just seems to be just a natural extension of the Papers Project. So when we talk about dialogue and the future of faith, I guess I would say that we’re always going to have to have faith. But what the Church is doing and what we can do for ourselves, be it by reading Dialogue or otherwise, is to continue to evaluate the reasons to believe and not to believe in making our own personal choice that Mormonism does represent God’s way for us to live our lives.
Greg Prince: Saint Anslem gave the classic definition of theology, it’s “Faith seeking understanding and understanding seeking faith.” And it’s that constant interplay between the two. I don’t know if you remember this but it was in Sacramento at the Mormon History Association Meeting, which I think was about eight years ago, and we were having just a casual conversation. You mentioned, if I’m remembering it correctly, that you would occasionally get calls as church historian from parents who would talk about their child who had gone on the internet and read something and that had created a crisis. Is that an accurate account of that?
Marlin Jensen: Yes. Sadly there was a period of time when those calls were all too frequent. In my attempts to help people on an individual basis, I’ve sat with dozens, I’d suppose, of children of people I’ve known, or children of people I haven’t known who have called to see if I would talk to their child. And again, I don’t, in those settings, claim the ability or the knowledge to respond to all their inquiries the way that someone else could. But I think that that’s the role I can play in those situations, maybe that’s the role we can all play is to try to indicate that we all have questions. We all are questing for truth. It isn’t a black and white faith that we belong to. And that gaining knowledge spiritually is different for all of us, it’s challenging for all of us and we all ebb and flow spiritually. I remember helping one man simply by saying to him, and this really comes from what I think is the finest essay every written on faith, Alma’s exposition in Alma 32 where he says “If you can do nothing more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you.” Which I translated for this young man as simply saying “Just lean into the church. Soften you skepticism and lean into Mormonism as things come to you. As you marry, as you raise children and see if this isn’t the way you’d want to live you life and the way God would want you to live it.” But there are literally thousands of young people and young couples, much to my dismay, even in our little secluded valley, I’ve met with 3 or 4 couples in recent years that are in their 30s or early 40s who have left the church over these troublesome issues. So I think it’s personally been a great loss to the church.
Greg Prince: And a lot of it is an inevitable fall out of the power of the internet. That the internet has not only democratized the data, but it has created a two-way superhighway of information: one way gets information to that individual; the other way links that individual to virtual communities all over the world. So it doesn’t matter anymore where you would fall on however long the spectrum you want to draw. In the past, you may have been the only one in your stake, or your ward or whatever, at that point. Now you can find a virtual community on the internet for any point on that line and that can be a plus, but it can also be a minus and we’ve seen both of those things. No longer can we just say “have faith” because we’ve seen what the challenge is when faith is confronted by data. And often that’s an inadvertent confrontation as is the case with these kids whose parents contacted you, but nonetheless there it is and it creates the crisis and you have to respond. It seems to me that the church’s response, in the form of those essays, really epitomizes what we are talking about with Dialogue and the future of faith because that is the same process if I’m reading it correctly. That not only did those essays attempt to answer the questions, but each one of them at the bottom acknowledges, without attribution to individual names, the work of outside scholars. I don’t know if that had ever been done before at that level. Can you comment on that?
Marlin Jensen: I think it was a real breakthrough personally because when we had the concept approved and were giving thought to how these essays were to be written, our recommendation from the History Department was that we try to locate the best person in the entire church to research and write a response to the issue. And they be paid for it, which is also a novel idea sometimes in our church. And it was approved. It was budgeted for and we did get, in many cases, the very best person to do that. But if I can interject here, Greg, and not to detract or deter from what we are talking about, a little story I’ve enjoyed through the years, an intellectual who died and went to heaven and got to the pearly gates to where St. Peter was. And when he got there, there were two directional signs: one side said “Heaven This Way.” And the other said “Lecture on Heaven This Way.” This is one of the worries that I have. And it’s interesting how my view of these things have changed over the years. There’s a lot to be said about old age, even with the things that atrophy. But one of the things I’m enjoying the most about old age is the more urgent feeling I have, the more seriously I feel about the practice of my religion. For years, especially during the time I served as church historian, I was involved in researching and writing about and speaking about and debating about and defending Latter-day Saint history and doctrine. And admire all of you who are doing that and have done that so well, but at this point in my life, the most urgent need I feel is to just live my religion. To not be girding for the battle anymore, but to actually fight it in my own life and within my own family. And so I’m hoping that in trying to counter the internet’s offerings, we won’t simply drown people in counter-information and continue this debate and continue the long quest that people seem to be on, but can somehow provide a sufficient foundation, a sufficient security, a safe enough harbor that people will be able to say to themselves “this is really the true religion, this really does represent the lifestyle I would like to leave with my family.” And yes I do believe there is an afterlife and as the Savior says ‘there will be many mansions there.'” I love it because the Bible says he says “if there were not so, I would have told you.” And I believe that. I believe he is The Way, The Truth and The Life. And I believe if it were not like that, he would have told us. So I guess that is the saddest thing to me, that at this point of my life, I have reached an angle of repose. And I wonder how to help other people reach that. It’s true that to some it’s given to know that the Son of God and the Savior and to others it is given to believe on their words. So I’m grateful to others and it is my hope that my words will help someone. And that our own convictions. Greg is an unusual person to me and it’s one of the reasons I’ve loved having a relationship with him all these years. Because he is smart enough to go into intellectual apostasy and he hasn’t. I may joke that he’s come close. But I don’t even mean that. But what it’s really taught me is that there are many ways to live this gospel. And I love the last panel. I didn’t hear it all, but that idea about love and acceptance and being non-judgmental with each other. Assuming he’s doing the best he knows how. Whatever our approach, whatever our degree of knowledge or the depth of our fault, just to be in it together, to appreciate that it’s not clear-cut, it’s not the same for everybody. I think this is something that create an atmosphere of love and acceptance in which faith could prosper more than it probably does in the church at the present time.
Greg Prince: Ok, you gave me your joke, so I’ll give you mine. Two men get to heaven a cab driver and a priest. The cabbie is up first. St. Peter says “Welcome to heaven, here’s a beautiful robe and a golden staff.” He walks in and the priest is feeling pretty good at this point. So St. Peter says “Welcome to heaven, here’s a wooden staff and a wool robe.” And the priest says “With all due respect, I think you’ve got us reversed. I spent my entire life in your service. And this man drove a cab.” St. Peter says “When you preached, people slept, when people got in his cab, they prayed.” But back on the topic at hand, I got interested in Phillips Brooks because President McKay so often quoted him. Phillips Brooks was one of the premier preachers of the 19th century, if you go to Boston, you’ll see a statue of him. But he gave a series of lectures at Yale Divinity School and one phrase that has really hung in my mind for years, he said “Preach not that they should believe, but by believing, they shall be saved.” And it gets back to being results oriented so that whatever conduit there is to get there, that’s what we’re obligated to do for ourselves, but to do for others. And sometimes it’s going to deal with an extra measure of faith and sometimes it’s going to deal with an extra measure of intellect, but I think that formula is going to vary from person person and within that indivudals, will vary from time to time and issue to issue. I don’t think it’s a set form.
Marlin Jensen: That’s true.
Greg Prince: Well thank you for your attention, and thank you espeically to Marlin for coming down here.