The following is the first half of a partial transcript I made of a Mormon Stories podcast interview with Greg Prince, whom I find absolutely fascinating. He is a modern-day renaissance man and represents Mormonism at its finest with his amazing knowledge, thoughtful tact, and raw honesty. At this point in the conference (about 1:35 in the audio podcast), the interviewer, in front of an audience very well educated in all the most problematic areas of the history of the LDS Church, poses what is unarguably a very difficult question: Can he explain how he maintains his faith despite being extremely familiar with all the issues that often cause others to struggle in their own faith? Greg Prince gives about as good an answer as I’ve ever heard to such a question.
John Dehlin: You know as much or more than any of us in the room about Church history, and yet you serve on a stake high council. And so I would love to give you a chance to tell us two things:
- How and what do you believe? What are the pillars of your faith? (I know that you’ve given a speech on this, but I’m asking you to summarize and add to it if you want to.) But what does your faith look like? And,
- if you were to make a case to some of those who have chosen to disengage, to consider re-engaging, would you consider ending with that case, please? [TSP: I have the transcript to Prince’s answer to this question on a separate post]
Greg Prince: So you’ve saved the easy [questions] for last?
John Dehlin: Typical Mormon Stories fashion. You guys are used to it, right?
Greg Prince: Things that have unhinged a lot of people, for whatever reason, have not unhinged me. Maybe it’s because I, somewhere along the way, set the bar so low.
[laughter from audience]
I figure that, as far as I can tell, all of these men who sit in those red chairs [i.e. the Church’s top leadership] are pretty good men who have pretty good intentions, but they’re also human beings, and at times, when they step above that level, then we all benefit. And you can see times when that has happened (you can argue if we have enough of those times), but you can see that they happen though. And of course, the principle example of that in our lifetime is 1978, where you had a man who stepped totally out of his character and changed the world of Mormonism, and in a smaller sense, changed the world because of it.
The rest of the time, if they screw up, then that gives me comfort and I can say to them, “Welcome to the bench”, ‘cuz it’s deep and it’s long and we have plenty of people here to keep you company.
I don’t expect more than that out of them. That also gives me hope that, occasionally, maybe I can rise a little bit above my own mediocrity and do something that might have some lasting value. I think if you can look at it that way, and factor out the human equation, then a lot of these troubles go away. And that includes things that they may have said or written, in addition to things that they’ve done.
Cut ’em some slack, they’re human beings, and that includes Joseph Smith. On a good day, he was very very good, and he had a lot of good days, but he had a lot more bad days. And if you look at the historical record dispassionately, you can see those bad days, and you can see that he didn’t always respond to those bad days in the way that we might have liked him to. But he did it that way, and so we are left to live with it, and we’re still in the process of sorting and pitching.
We do not look like a Joseph Smith church the way we looked like a Joseph Smith church 150 years ago, or 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. And those of you who can think back just a few years, may recall that there was a Time magazine cover story that had Richard Ostling asking an interesting question of President Hinckley along the lines of, “Is it true that the Mormons believe that they will become Gods?” Do you remember President Hinkley’s response?
[The audience, quite familiar with this incident, immediately chimes back in unison with Hinckley’s response, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it.”]
Now think about that, because the next week, he told some of the Church employees who were a little bit upset, “Don’t you think I know what we believe?” But he didn’t take the words back.
Now, was that actually a sea change in Latter-day Saint theology? I don’t know yet. It might have been, because it would not have been the first time that we distanced ourselves from something Joseph Smith had taught. We did it with polygamy. We’ve done it with a few other things along the way, too. But generally, in this church, we stake out new ground by abandoning old ground quietly. And that’s why you have to be paying attention to understand what’s happening, because it won’t come out as a First Presidency statement. Or, if it does, the important thing about that statement is what it doesn’t say that the last one did say, and that tips you off as to where things are heading.
So, yeah, cut ’em some slack, don’t shoot the pianist, he’s doing the best he can. And on the days that they’re doing the best that they can, some really good things happen. But very often, the pace and the nature of the change is too slow for the rest of us and some of us lose patience and say, “I’m outta here.” Or they’ll say, “Well, how could these men do something like that?” The reason that they could do something like that is that they’re men, and God allows them to screw up. And sometimes he allows them to screw up really big, and I imagine God sitting there saying, “Ok, you dug the hole. When you’re ready to climb out, let me know, and we’ll talk.”
That is a world view that has worked for me, and it allows me to confront everything that’s out there without trying to sweep anything under the rug. If you sweep it under the rug, it comes back out later, and it’s more malignant when it comes back out than when you put it under, so you gotta deal with these things.
It’s worked for me, and I don’t think I’ve hid the ball on any of these things, and I’ve looked really deeply. I don’t know that there are very many people in this church at any level who have read more of the inner workings of the highest levels of the Church than I have. When you start with a 40,000 page diary of a president, that gives you a good down payment on it. And as I said earlier, I don’t think that there are any big surprises, and I’m not even sure if there are very many little surprises sitting there.
So, on the one hand, I’ve dealt with those questions and they don’t bother me. They also hold out hope that even the laity may steer the battleship, because a little flick at that rudder now may cause a great change in course down the road a bit, and maybe we’re the ones who can make that flick at the rudder, if we stay in as Juanita Brooks did. Her father said, “If you want to influence this church, it’s like a herd of cattle. You don’t want to be in the middle, you many not even want to be out in front. But you don’t want to be way out there.” He said, “You want to be at the side, so that you can nudge the herd and start to steer it in a different direction.” That’s good wisdom.
But that’s not just why I stay. That may be why I don’t leave.
There is something authentic and something religious within Mormondom that resonates with me, that resonates with a lot of other people. Can you articulate that? I can’t. It’s more a sense of what you feel and experience than what you can articulate. But it’s there nonetheless, and it has been a consistent thing for a lot of people for a long time, and I’ve interacted with a lot of those people who have had the same experience and have the same feeling about it. I mean, in a weak moment, I’ll say, well that’s a testimony, but it’s far more nebulous than just saying, “Alright, stand up and bear us your testimony.”
Appreciating Other Faiths
That is tempered at the same time by an increasing amount of contact that I’ve had with other faith traditions. Thanks to Joelynn, who enrolled as the first LDS student at Wesley Seminary (We’re not going to tell you how many years ago because she’s only 29 now), I eventually have had a lot of contact with Wesley Seminary in D.C., the largest Methodist seminary in the country. I’m now on one of their steering committees, the first Mormon to ever sit on one of those. If you sit at that level with those people, try to tell me that you’ve got a monopoly on goodness out there. If anything, you’re scrambling, saying, “How are we gonna catch up with these folks?” Because they’re way out in front of us in making this stuff work.
My “Why I Stay” essay is in the Bob Rees anthology that’s going to be coming out some time this year, I don’t when [TSP: it has now been released], and I said in there that it’s enough for me to see God within the Mormon tradition, but it’s above my pay level to tell Him what to do with the rest of His time. In other words, I can see His hand in other faith traditions, as well as among people who don’t ascribe to any faith tradition, and they are doing great and marvelous and ethereal things that draw upon powers beyond their own to accomplish good things. How am I gonna sit here and say, “We got it all.” That’s not only wrong, it’s the height of arrogance, and so I don’t say that. I say that it’s enough for me to see that a portion of that sometimes makes its way into our tradition, and that’s good, and that’s enough to keep me there. Whether we get as much as we should, I don’t know.
What is the unique role of Mormonism if others are basking in that light as well? I grapple with that. I’m not sure. I sense that it may have something to do with what we call families; that, if you think about the Mormon perspective on families, it is different. In fact, the president of the seminary said, “Alright, give me one word that tells me what Mormonism is that others aren’t.” And I said, “Family.” And he says, “Ok, I get it.” Because of our afterlife theology, because of our emphasis in this life (which isn’t that different from others), but certainly the afterlife theology is.
And then look at the geneological program. The main beneficiaries of that have not been the LDS. It has been an awareness that has permeated the entire world, largely because of the path breaking that the Mormons have done in making all of thise information available free of charge, and mostly free of strings. (We’ve overstepped occasionally, like [with] the Holocaust victims.) But nonetheless, even factoring those out, that says a lot about what he have done as a tradition that’s different from what the others have done, at the same time that I don’t want to build a wall between us and them. Because I honestly feel that we have an enormous amount of catching up to do if we are to claim a place at the same table where they eat, we’ve rested on our laurels far too long.