Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

How Much Can We Know About God?: Blog Tour Review of Ken Howard’s New Book “Paradoxy”

Blog Tour.jpg

Earlier this week on Flunking Sainthood, a fellow Mormon was offended by an offhand remark I had made about some General Authorities not appearing to read widely. I was not surprised by someone taking offense, which is a regular occurrence on blogs, particularly ones about religion. But I was disappointed with the spiritual immaturity of this person’s proposed solution to the fact that I had lodged a criticism, even a light one made in partial jest: “This
comment shows her lack of support for the prophets of the church. If
she cannot sustain the leadership of the church, she needs to
disassociate herself with us.”


I’ve been thinking about this exchange while reading the early chapters of Ken Howard’s new book Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them. (Just to bring you up to speed on the book and the blog tour, Chapter 1 was reviewed on this New Zealander’s liturgy blog, and Chapter 2 was incisively reviewed yesterday by Amy Moffou at Without a Map. You can also read praise from Brian McLaren, who wrote the foreword to the book and blogged about it here.)


Howard’s main thesis is that the fault lines between conservative and liberal Christians have never been more pronounced, and that these divisions are occurring because three of the solid structures traditionally used to support Christianity–Christendom, foundationalism, and organized religion–are crumbling. 

Voices are shrill because so much change is happening so quickly and
people worry there is much to lose. Some will respond to open
discussions about religious change with fear, as with the commenter
whose knee-jerk response to criticism was to suggest that anyone who
disagreed with any aspect of the trappings of religion needed to leave.
This, however, is not the response of Jesus, nor is it the answer of any
mature Christian. When we have a disagreement in our own families, for
example, we don’t simply walk out and say, “You’re impossible. I’m out
of here.” If we are wise, we learn from one another and we work it out.
Why, then, do we so easily forget that the body of Christ is a family
too, and that we are called to stand by each other? (1 Cor. 12)


3 of Howard’s book specifically addresses how Christians deal with the
collapse of foundationalism, or the claim that truths can be fully
ascertained through human reason. I would argue that the “collapse” of
foundationalism overstates the case, but it is certainly true that many
Christians cling to certain idols as lifeboats in uncertain times–the
idea of an inerrant Bible or religious leader, for example–and become
hostile when their foundationalist claim is questioned. He argues that
people respond in one of three ways when someone or something tips their
sacred cows:

  1. They rally around the purist position,
    using foundationalist strategies to uphold what they see as received
    truths. (The classic example of this would be using the Bible to “prove”
    the truth of the Bible.)
  2. They compromise and adapt. They might soften their position in response to other claims to truth.
  3. They
    shoot the messenger by creating a “them,” then focus on the
    inconsistencies and problems with the arguments of that group.  
Small Martin-Luther-1543-1.jpg

seen all three of these responses among Christians–and sometimes, disappointingly, in myself. I
wish I could be optimistic about the future of this debate, but I agree
with Howard’s assessment that the conversation will continue to splinter
along predictable fault lines.


I also agree with his larger claim that
we are living through a Second Reformation. The problem, as you may
recall, is that a whole lot of people died the first time around. In
this country, unlike 16th-century Europe, we enjoy great political
stability, making a repeat of bloody religious wars unlikely here.
However, that doesn’t mean that Christians will face these changes hand
in hand and treat one another with respect. That’s something we need to work on, starting with me.    


  • Dave

    Thank you for this blog. The book sounds like a worthy read and your comments are spot on. I’ve had the opportunity to read one or two other things you have written and think you are a very good spokesperson for the LDS Faith Tradition. As a sympathetic liberal Protestant who is married to a Mormon woman I appreciate your combination of faithfulness to your own beliefs with respect for the beliefs of others. It is most refreshing.

  • Jana Riess

    Thanks so much for that kind remark. Our Mormopalian family is always glad to meet other couples who are navigating a balance of faith traditions. On Sunday after sacrament meeting we’ll be going to a blessing of the animals service in honor of Saint Francis. It’s a joy. :-)

  • DMc

    Asking simple questions or raising rudimentary concern when understanding is lost is no crime. Trust me, God wants us to question. Problem is if we don’t do what we have been told in the scriptures then we don’t get any answers and end up leaning to our own understanding. To rebut 1Cor 12, I offer Matt 12: 25.
    The problem with applying scripture is to know when to apply it. The epistles answer specific questions but we do not know the questions, yet we apply the answers where they ought not go. Synonyms and homonyms have caused unnecessary religious wars, neither side knowing both are wrong. Jana’s questions and quips do not divide the house, but the unknowning would think her comments do just that and ask for her expulsion by applying Matt 12:25 when it should not be invoked. Ignorance under available Light is sad. Keep asking, Jana, you will find some questions I never thought to ask, which will do nothing but increase my knowledge, even though I don’t agree with everything you say.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    One of the things that most surprised me when reading Evangelical Christian publications was the idea that they know the Bible narrative is true because the weight of human learning and reason prove it is so. Associated with this idea is the view that Mormon beliefs are pernicious because Mormons, and the Book of Mormon, invite people to judge their truth claims by asking God in prayer for the answer, and claiming God will provide individual revelation to that effect.
    While I believe the Old and New Testaments are inspired books, which transmit messages of great importance, and in particular that the personal testimony of the Gospels and Epistles are reliable accounts of observed events, I think it is overstating the case to claim, as many people do, that archeology proves the Bible is true. While there are various places that have been nominated for the tomb of Jesus Christ, there is no definitive evidence that would convince an archeologist that Jesus was resurrected based on the appearance of any of those places. We know the site of the temple in Peter’s day, but there is no archeological evidence that can affirm the miracle of Peter healing the lame man at the temple gate.
    While we learn of those events by reading the record, we know the truth of them by a spiritual perception, something that speaks TO our minds but does not originate IN our minds. The perception of truth is a personal miracle, an affirmation that the reality in which Jesus and the apostles performed miracles is also the world we live in.
    And the Bible itself tells us we live in that world, when James invites us to ask God for wisdom, when Jesus invites us to ask the Father for whatsoever we need, when a prophet prays and receives a revelation in reply. A system of belief that insists the Bible is God’s full and final revelation, while refusing the Bible’s invitation to receive revelation for ourselves, does not, in my opinion, live up to a claim of being firmly based on reason.

  • Paul

    Attribution of inerrancy or infallibility to religious texts or leaders is a relatively new phenomenon in the LDS faith tradition. What started as a radical departure from the Protestant thought of its day has gradually embraced both conservative Protestant and Catholic notions regarding scripture and heirarchical leadership.

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