Monday, December 15, 2014

On Being Seasick While Staying In The Boat

Based on a recent stake conference talk by a visiting area authority and subsequent comments I've overheard, Elder Ballard's General Conference message to "stay in the boat" seems to have become quite the catchphrase. Elder Ballard includes the solid admonition to "keep our focus on the Lord," but the title "Stay in the Boat and Hold On!" ensures this will be what's most remembered.

Keeping with the water metaphor, Brigham Young is then quoted as likening the Church to a ship carrying passengers across the ocean--"the Old Ship Zion". Elder Ballard then asks the following: "Given the challenges we all face today, how do we stay on the Old Ship Zion?" For the vast majority of church members, staying in the boat is a lovely experience and the question of how to stay isn't much of a concern. But there is a significant group of passengers experiencing seasickness for whom this question of how to stay is a lot more poignant (maybe even painful) than Elder Ballard probably imagined.

The honest truth is that for seasick Mormons, "stay[ing] in the boat" is often made more difficult from fellow passengers within the ship--sometimes even from the crew. Desiring more diversity and living authentically with nuanced views can lead to frustrating encounters and even judgement from church family and friends who are generally satisfied with the way things are. If one is not content with the status quo, many assume something is wrong with the one. At times it feels as though the one must develop superhuman love and patience to continue in the boat healthily, or at least to avoid hitting someone over the head with an oar. When seasick, it's natural to question if we'd be better off not being in the boat, or at least to question why staying in has to be so hard.

To those who are already hurting or seasick, the exhortation to "stay in the boat" isn't likely to be the most helpful message. The weather and conditions outside the boat often look quite lovely in comparison to the conditions endured onboard. A rare but unfortunate reality is that some prideful passengers attempt to throw others overboard whom they have judged to be unfit for the "Old Ship Zion". I use the word prideful deliberately because there's a certain degree of pride among passengers who take it upon themselves to pharisaically remind others of the ships rules and culture and care more about the boat itself than the condition of the passengers in the boat.

In her book What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Chieko N. Okazaki (former counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency) wrote:
There is in an older edition of our LDS hymnal a warning to those who assume ‘all is well in Zion.’ It is a hymn we don’t sing anymore, but perhaps we should. It is entitled ‘Think Not When You Gather to Zion,’ and it reads in part: 
Think not when you gather to Zion,
That all will be holy and pure;
That fraud and deception are banished,
And confidence wholly secure.
No, no, for the Lord our Redeemer
Has said that the tares with the wheat
Must grow ‘til the great day of burning
Shall render the harvest complete. 
...Ed and I understood why it was hard for people to look past our skin color and slanted eyes to our smiles and our hearts. We heard many hurtful things. We had to deal with the fact that we couldn’t get car insurance or buy a home and that even at church, people hesitated to approach us. Ed and I said many times to each other, ‘If we were going to lose our testimonies, it would be right here in the heart of Zion.’  
...And that’s perhaps why we loved this hymn, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus,’ and heard its echoes every time we sang ‘Israel, Israel, God Is Calling’ [the two have the same tune]. 
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee,
Thou wilt find a solace there.
The point is that just being on the "Old Ship Zion" doesn't guarantee all is well in Zion. And if all we do is constantly reassure ourselves of how wonderful and "true" the ship is, we too easily become complacent and forget that we each have a responsibility to make things better in Zion. Perhaps we'll even forget our covenant to mourn with those who mourn and comfort seasick passengers needing comfort. We all would do well to become better acquainted with Jesus, the Master Healer, or as Elder Ballard put it, to "keep our focus on the Lord."

When we start focussing on other things, I start getting seasick. In my Mormon experience, too often the focus has been on the Lord's church, even more than on the Lord. It seems to have become commonplace at church to speak of the church as though the church were the actual "good news". The gospel is the "good news." Church and gospel are not synonyms. We gather together because of the gospel--not for the sake of the gathering itself. If the gathering is only focused on itself, it's missing the life-giving gospel that brought us there in the first place.

When month after month after month people continue to speak and testify of "the church" as though it were the actual "gospel", you know we have a problem with our focus. Overemphasizing the church while at church (more than the actual gospel of Jesus Christ) is like being mesmerized so much by bathwater that people forget there's an actual baby in the bath. Even worse, if we keep our sights solely on the condition of the boat, we all run the risk of loosing sight of the One who calms the waves and walks on water.

Elder Ballard likens church leaders to "experienced guides" of a river rafting trip, no doubt intended to instill confidence. This would be benign enough if only Mormon culture didn't presently have a such a problem with hero worship and turning our prophet-leaders into idols. I wish I could minimize the degree of this crisis, but too often the grass-roots take-away message is that listening to the guides is naturally the same thing as listening to the One who created the water--or in other words, that trusting in ecclesiastical leaders is the same thing as trusting in God. This too makes me seasick.

Joseph Smith once said the people were depending too much on the prophet and "hence were darkened in their minds". Notwithstanding, before long emphasis/focus began to be placed on following the mortal church leaders even more than on following the perfect Savior. Maybe there's a healthy and mindful balance, but I'm pretty sure we're out of balance when it's assumed that by following certain mortals in certain church callings we're automatically following Christ. Autopilot substitution of the former for the latter creates an idol, and some Latter-day Saints turn our prophets into idols without even realizing it. Is it any wonder some of us are getting nauseous? The scriptures warn about trusting in "the arm of the flesh," yet how many equate "trusting LDS priesthood authority" with "trusting God?"

I can trust that God is perfect, but my trust in prophets is different. I can trust the prophet to have inspiration when acting as a prophet, and I can trust that prophets are doing the best they can in their unique stewardship and have our best interests at heart. But I'm not trusting them to be infallible. The pseudo-doctrine that prophets "can't lead us astray" exists in tension with their expressed fallibility and leads some to mistakenly believe that prophets are perfect in the administration of the things of God. I get seasick when we oversell expectations for prophets, even to the point that some Mormons forget that it's not the (false) fourteen fundamentals of following the prophet that constitute the fundamental principles of our religion, but rather the atonement of Christ

This isn't to say that I don't respect the crew. They have a unique job and it's not an easy one. I love and sustain them. But I'm not on board because of the crew. Moreover, if the fundamental principle of our religion is the atonement of Jesus Christ, then it's definitely not fundamental that I agree with or even like everything coming from the crew, regardless of how many times I'm told they won't lead the boat "astray". It puzzles me how often that word is used, and yet I'm not convinced we're all on the same page as to what "astray" is even supposed to mean. Some assume this is a "promise" that the ship will never be guided wrong, and some assume it was the Lord who made such a "promise" in the first place. It's clear that we need to work through some tensions that inevitably come from living with fallibility.

My understanding is that the Lord chooses human beings to steer the ship, leaving to them their personality, humanity, talents, and weaknesses (see both D&C 1:24 and D&C 124:1.) The Lord has set the destination but gives the keys of the ship to mortals and grants them their agency to steer the ship to the best of their ability and with the faith that we'll reach our ultimate destination. I believe we should support the crew as best we can--after all we're all in the same boat, and no one wants it to fail. But everyone--prophets included--works out their own personal itineraries with a unique blend of perspiration and inspiration, and sometimes mistakes are made--undeniably even big mistakes (such as denying access to the temple and the priesthood because of race.)

As President Uchtdorf put it: "I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings...but He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes." Why, then, do so many Mormons (including leaders) seem to want us to ignore that the ship is imperfect? Why insist our "guides" will never cause us any "sad experience", despite what D&C 121:39 says?

I don't expect infallibility from the crew anymore than I expect infallibility from the Old Ship Zion. Once upon a time there were some authorities who wanted their passengers to take comfort in the "fact" that the Titanic was "unsinkable." Knowing from sad experience how history played out--that it too proved to be fallible--prevents me from taking much comfort in even the most well-intended assurances from our authorities.

I personally don't need a perfect boat to stay afloat, so I'm not expecting a perfect boat ride. I know I'm not perfect so I don't expect perfection from anyone else. Maybe it's true that God will not let this particular ship crash into an iceberg and go completely under--maybe he would replace the captain before that happened. But based on past travel history, it's apparent to me that "not being led astray" does NOT mean the guides can't take confusing detours or chart a longer than necessary route that delays our progress. Perhaps the guides will attempt to navigate a particular wave that makes me want to throw up. The ship may spend more time in shallow waters than I'd personally prefer, or get uncomfortably close to the cliffs. I may yet feel like strapping on a life-preserver and heading for the lifeboats. The ship's destination may very well be guaranteed, but there's no guarantee that I will always enjoy the ride.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Zion="Expanding Grid Mormonism"

I was recently introduced to Scott Hales' "The Garden of Enid" comics, but I think this one, suggesting "Expanding Grid Mormonism" is a better analogy than "Big Tent Mormonism"--is quite profound. A screenshot of the concluding frames--a lovely thought:


Joseph Smith imagined the Church as a city laid out in an orderly grid...

...that would expand its boundaries as it welcomed more people in...

..In this city people would live in harmony, but tend to individual stewardships tailored to personal needs and strengths...

..and celestial law, not cultural tradition, would guide the affairs of the people--ensuring justice and mercy...

...so...maybe instead of "Big Tent Mormonism" we could say "Expanding Grid Mormonism"... or IDK...use the word the Lord used: "Zion".


"Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony"

One my favorite quotes is from Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin:

"Some are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed.

"The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole."

This song fits so perfectly with that message:


There are times when you might feel aimless
You can't see the places where you belong
But you will find that there is a purpose
It's been there within you all along and when you're near it
You can almost hear it.

[Chorus:]
It's like a symphony just keep listening
And pretty soon you'll start to figure out your part
Everyone plays a piece in their own melodies
In each one of us, oh, it's glorious

[Verse 2:]
You will know how to let it ring out as you discover who you are
Others around you will start to wake up
To the sounds that are in their hearts
It's so amazing, what we're all creating

[Chorus:]
It's like a symphony just keep listening
And pretty soon you'll start to figure out your part
Everyone plays a piece in their own melodies
In each one of us, oh, it's glorious

[Bridge:]
And as you feel the notes build [higher]
You will see

[Chorus:]
It's like a symphony just keep listening
And pretty soon you'll start to figure out your part
Everyone plays a piece in their own melodies
In each one of us, oh, it's glorious

Friday, November 14, 2014

What "Sustaining" Our Leaders *Really* Means

One of the best statements about sustaining our leaders was written during this past tumultuous Mormon summer by my friend, Christian Harrison. The following is an excerpt from his guest post: "A Prayer from the Sidelines":

In a church that readily — or, perhaps, merely repeatedly — reminds us of the fallibility of our leaders, yet urges us to sustain them, we can’t help but ask ourselves how we sustain those who are mistaken (especially in light of D&C 121:39). Sometimes the mistakes are small or inadvertent. Sometimes they’re howlers. Sometimes they resolve themselves. And sometimes they persist for generations. 
I think the problem is born of two errors: a mischaracterization of what it means to sustain our leaders… and a misunderstanding of what our responsibility is to those who might disagree with us. 
The principle of sustaining our leaders is often coupled with the principle of obedience. It’s natural for leadership to feel sustained when they observe obedience… but this is an error of perspective. When I raise my hand to the square to sustain someone in their position — regardless of whether it be the President of the Church or the person who prints the ward bulletin — I’m not promising to obey them. I’m promising to sustain them
The term “sustain” is rich with meaning. Food sustains us. Love sustains us. Unblinking obedience does not sustain us. My sustaining vote is evidenced and manifest when I pray for their success — when I’m rooting for them and helping them to magnify their calling. And, like food and love, the act of sustaining is reciprocative. My sustaining vote is accepted when those I sustain embrace and facilitate me in my work as the sustainer.
And when we disagree — and we will, it’s inevitable — we’re not called upon to simply succumb to the demands of begrudging obedience, which is a destructive act; we’re called, instead, to the godly and creative act of loving someone despite their failings. This is at the heart of the weighty calling of sibling-ship. 
This is easier when the person we’re sustaining lives in our ward and when the lines of communication are vivid and vibrant — full of life and light. It’s much harder when the lines of communication have crumpled under the crushing weight of a growing and global membership. And since the act of sustaining is reciprocative, the difficulties that arise from broken or missing lines of communication don’t fall solely on the shoulders of those who have grievances. They must be shared by all parties, jointly and severally. Calling on those who feel wronged to bear their grief in silence is to reject their sustaining vote. And who, then, carries the greater sin? Instead, it behooves our distant leaders to open lines of communication and to clear the way for dialogue. Only then can the process work as it should — feeding the Body of Christ. 
Sadly, the grieved don’t always want to be comforted. Sometimes, they want to simply walk away, to defect — which is the true meaning of apostasy. What, then, is our responsibility to the defector? It’s clear, really. Among the lost sheep there are those who were left behind accidentally… and there are those who simply walked off. But no distinction is made in the scriptures. The good shepherd goes after all of them. At no point does the shepherd cut them off or throw them to the wolves.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"We are to embrace all truth not just the convenient truth"

I think Darius Gray has a lot to teach us about grappling with messy history. Even though his comment below specifically had to do with past institutional racism, I think it can be applied to any number of topics, such as those being addressed because of recent LDS church essays. This particular comment was buried deep in a "Times and Seasons" blog post from 2006 (comment #110 to be exact) on a post entitled "We have nothing to apologize for but we should do it anyway". The link I originally saved appears to no longer be accessible:


Dear Friends,

Please reread my comments. Nowhere have I asked for an apology, let alone demanded one. Frankly, an apology isn’t that important to me but an acknowledgment of our past and the issues which have resulted is important. Our focus should be on the here and now — but with an eye to the future. I fully agree with those who say we cannot go back and change our history but we should be able to look at it honestly and learn the lessons it offers.

The concern expressed in my earlier response was because of the apparent dichotomy of applying one standard if the aggrieved party was the institutional Church and a different standard if the aggrieved party was someone injured by the institutional Church. It is part of our church culture to remember the harsh treatment given the early members while they were in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. We find it appropriate to remember those wrongs but wince when asked to look inward. Brothers and Sisters THAT is inconsistent. As Christians we are to embrace all truth not just the convenient truth. Whether the injustices done at Mountain Meadows or the insensitivities shown persons of color the issue isn’t about finding fault but about learning to be better. As I understand the task, that can come through open and honest examination done in a Christ centered way.

For those who feel you are defending the Church please know you are not alone. I have defended it for nearly 42 years and have zero interest in causing any harm. Again, I seek no apology nor have I ever — nor do I see myself standing in some future judgment of others for their past wrongs. However, I do hope that we, as an institution and as individuals, can come to understand that false teachings are still very much with us and that it is required of us to seek truth — and to speak truth.

Best wishes,
Darius

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hazards of Obedience

"I long for the day when LDS church meetings and materials tout not only the virtues of obedience, but its potential hazards as well. As my daughter gets older, I guess I’ll have to supplement the messages she receives in church with correctives that keep her more balanced than the diet of weekly obedience rhetoric from her church meetings is likely to provide her. Unfortunate, really, but that’s life in the modern-day Mormon Church I guess.

"(I’m not speaking to the merits of the Church’s position on gay marriage at all. I’m speaking to the one-sidedness of LDS discourse on obedience in general, of which this editorial is a disturbing and all-too-typical example, nothing more)."

Aaron Brown, comment #67 http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2008/07/when-the-prophet-speaks/


Do we all passively note the increasing references to obedience as the first commandment, and the passing of free agency as a tangible LDS belief, without remembering the beauty of Matthew 22: 36-40, or the savage rationalizations and emotions that led to Dachau, My Lai, or Mountain Meadows? The obedience path is one which has a ditch on either side, and I am convinced that present fears of the disorder on the one side are pushing us toward the abyss on the other. 
The abyss is described by Stanley Milgram in his 1974 book, "Obedience to Authority", which reports his extensive work on the destructive consequences of blind obedience of being submissive to control from others. In a famous series of laboratory experiments begun at Yale University and repeated at different sites around the world, student assistants were instructed by university researchers to administer electric shocks to fellow students who were participating in a study to determine the effect of negative feedback on learning. The more mistakes the learner made, the higher the intensity of the charge sent by the student behind the one-way glass. As the learners writhed increasingly from the pain being inflicted upon them when they made mistakes, some of the student assistants said they did not want to hurt the subjects and wished to stop. Their consciences were speaking to them. When reassured by the white jacketed scholars that this was an important experiment that had to be carried on to conclusion and that many other people had been willing to carry through with these same responsibilities in previous runs of the experiment, most of the students proceeded to inflict well-nigh unbearable suffering, even when those behind the glass begged and pleaded to be unwired and one subject screamed, "I've got a weak heart!'', then slumped in his chair. In truth, the electric shocks were not actually being sent; the recipients were all actors. The real subjects in the study were the student assistants themselves. Milgram was trying to determine the limits of obedience and the vulnerability of personal conscience when authority and precedent press hard against it.  He was sobered by what he found. A pre-experiment prediction was that not even one in a hundred assistants would go to the limit of the electronic equipment. In reality, nearly two-thirds of them did. 
Why did students lack the courage to say no to their superiors?  The fact that the experiment was described to them as being highly important, the assurances that others had obediently carried these responsibilities through in the past, and the air of confidence shown by the authorities, all contributed to the successful suppression of personal judgment and the courage to act on it. When interviewed following the experiments, many of the students said they felt sure what they were doing was wrong, but their belief that they were part of something larger, and the authorities' calm assurances, led them to surrender the claims of their own conscience. 
People of any age, but especially the young, are susceptible to control by others. This is particularly true among Mormons, precisely because of our strong emphasis on respecting those in authority. Even those who believe that obedience to religious authorities can never be excessive must recognize that a blindly obedient mentality nurtured within a religious context can lead to extreme vulnerability outside it. The scale of scams and success of swindlers in Utah is one evidence that Mormons too easily defer judgment to others if, for whatever reason, they decide to trust them.  An obedient people is a people easily led--by whoever comes along. 
The analogy of the fasces--the bundle of flimsy sticks bound tightly with cords to form a mighty instrument--is often used to justify organizational discipline and obedience to a single person or elite. It illustrates the strength of directed thought and action, yet despite the fact that this image appeared on the American dime for decades, we must remember that it was the symbol from which the fascists (or Nazis) took their name. Willingness to blindly accept orders from other persons involves the transfer of control from inside the self to an external locus. The individual feels an increasing sense of duty to the leaders but loses a sense of responsibility for his or her own actions and their consequences, thus producing the "crimes of obedience'' that have ravaged virtually all totalitarian societies and from which no society or group can claim immunity. 
Free societies, however, are based on the ideal that each individual is an irreducible, independent moral agent. Those who are able to think for themselves, are not only essential to the existence of free institutions but also fully prepared to enjoy and benefit from the blessings of life itself. For them, obedience is to principles, not persons; an informed conscience is their guide.  General Alexander W. Doniphan possessed the unusual courage to resist a written military order, and Joseph Smith was spared execution on the morning of 1 November 1838 (HC 3:190-99). We honor Doniphan for disobeying his military superior; his ultimate loyalty was to principle. 
The irony today, regarding the obedience issue within the LDS Church, is that distinctions are rarely made between loyalty to leaders and loyalty to principle. It is simply assumed that they are one and the same. Yet this union would require a claim of infallibility, not only for the president of the Mormon Church but for the entire priesthood. Omni-infallibility. Since such a claim has never been made and scriptures clearly warn us about the dangers of exercising unrighteous dominion (D&C 121:39), we inevitably face the task of making distinctions about obedience.  My ultimate loyalty may be to God, but how do I know God's will? Through the study of scripture? By listening to Church leaders? By applying gospel principles? Or, by sensing the still small voice? These sources of understanding are not always consistent; but even if they were, they could not fully anticipate or inform every action or judgment I must make. New situations constantly confront me; only an enlightened and prayerful conscience can blend divine intent with personal knowledge to guide my decisions. No one has the wisdom or right to do this for me. 
Gospel principles and the Church are not synonymous.  But one reason these concepts have become so blurred is that we seem to be making obedience to Church into a terminal principle, rather than an instrumental one. It has become an end in itself. Therein lies the confusion about the first commandment: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22: 37--40).  Loyalty to God and love of neighbor are the ends. Obedience to enduring principles is a means. Once obedience itself becomes an end, however, the believer no longer takes full responsibility for the consequences of his or her own actions. If things go awry, the sin be on someone else's head. Never mind those sinned against. Fortunately, "love thy neighbor as thyself," the ultimate principle, dams this stream of faulty reasoning.

Friday, October 31, 2014

"Restive And Concerned"

Armand Mauss (from p. 70 of his memoir), writing about correlation during an era he came to call 'retrenchment':
I recall being pleased originally with the new FHE and CES initiatives of the church leaders, since they seemed likely to enhance and strengthen both family life and systematic religious instruction around the church. However, I was increasingly restive and concerned about certain other signs indicating that a new postwar generation of church leaders was moving to magnify and intensify its control not only over organizational processes, but also over the religious and intellectual life of its members and individuals. In particular, a revitalized "correlation" effort (rather dilatory since the 1920s) began gradually to centralize operations of the entire ecclesiastical organization, including all the accessories, under the apostles and the First Presidency, with operational authority confined to the priesthood ranks. Although not apparent during the 1960s, at least not to the rank and file, this "correlation" process was gradually to have certain consequences and implications (some no doubt unintended) during the succeeding decade: for example, reduction in the status and power of LDS women, both in their ecclesiastical and in their domestic roles; reduction in the tenure and authority of local bishops, stake presidents, and mission presidents; standardization and reduction in the intellectual rigor of church publications and instructional materials for the auxiliaries (such as Sunday school); declining tolerance in the priesthood leadership for independent intellectual activities of members that it could not control (publications, symposia, study groups, "firesides," and so on); and the interposition of a large paid, professional civil service-like bureaucracy between the members and their lay priesthood leaders in the planning and implementation of the "correlated" policies and teachings from headquarters.

Friday, October 24, 2014

What Mormons should–and should not–expect from prophets

Julie Smith makes some salient observations on having more realistic and historically accurate expectations of prophets, based on Church teachings in the New Polygamy Essays


"What I see here is–intentional or not–the articulation of a theology of prophetic revelation that runs precisely opposite to the way that many Mormons (mis)read Amos to say that God will do nothing without first revealing his secrets to the prophets (Amos 3:7) and that whether by God’s voice or the voice of church leaders, it is precisely identical (D & C 1:38). Rather, this suggests that God reveals things line by line (a scripture frequently quoted in these essays), does not reveal all details at once, and leaves some matters to be worked out without divine mandate.

"I think the odd confluence of 1950s American corporate culture, historical amnesia, and rapid world-wide growth led Mormonism to advance the idea that a CEO-like prophet got regular memos from God, bullet-pointed with precise operating instructions designed to maximize return for the next quarter. Diligent work by historians, now disseminated instantly and internationally, shows that that vision isn’t quite precise. It is understandable that some will mourn that vision–I know I’d feel much safer led by that bespoke-suited CEO, divine memo in hand, than by some guy with a leather belt eating locusts in the wilderness. And yet, we should thank those historians (some of whom sacrificed their careers, if not their very membership in the Church, in order to publish things very similar to what is hosted on the Church’s own website today) for helping us overcome the cultural conditioning that misled us regarding what prophets are and what they do. The glass through which we see today is a little less dark because of their work, not just on historical matters related to polygamy but also regarding what we should–and should not–expect from prophets."


Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Puzzle of Polygamy

"In this church you only need to believe the truth, find out what the truth is." -Henry Eyring Sr.

The LDS history of polygamy is a puzzle capable of creating much cognitive dissonance. And learning the "truth" about it is murkier than the average "gospel" topic. I've learned enough to realize that it's like a car wreck--uncomfortable but you just can't look away. Mormon historian Richard Bushman had a candid exchange with the national media a few years ago during a Pew Forum on religion and public life in which the topic came up:
Polygamy. How many people want me to talk about polygamy? I know you all are curious. Polygamy is an interesting thing because it serves as a Rorschach test. People project onto Joseph Smith and the polygamists their own sense about human nature. "It's just what you would expect men to do;" or "Yeah, that is what I would like" – (laughter) – that sort of thing. Neither of those, I think, is accurate in Joseph Smith's case. 
It's a perplexing problem for Mormons for a variety of reasons. One important reason is that it is so contrary to Mormon contemporary ideas of family – companionate, eternal friends going on with their children forever, versus a community wives constituting a family. So that is an ideological problem for Mormons.
It's also perplexing because Joseph Smith himself gave so few rationales for it. The best rationale is one revelation written down in 1843. That is virtually all he said on the subject, and plural marriages are depicted simply as part of the restoration of the ancient order of things. Smith brings priesthood out of the Bible. He brings temples out of the Bible. He brings the temple rituals out of the rituals for sanctifying priests in the book of Exodus, and he brings polygamy out of the Bible. That is all he said, that the injunction for polygamy is to go and do the works of Abraham. Beyond that, it's hard to understand.
In actual fact, polygamy seemed to have served a function in society. We now have a fine-grained study of polygamy in one community where we know every family in the community and all of the details about them. And what polygamy seems to have been was a way in which young women without male protection – no father, no older brother, no near relative to care for them – were absorbed into Mormon society.
Polygamy went up when the immigration rates went up. And the young women who came into these families in this little town were young women in that position. Not all of them – but that was the single most common type of plural wife. More than 50 percent of them fit this description. So it was a way of caring for people and may have contributed to the resilience of the society. 
But Mormons themselves are puzzled about the meaning of polygamy, beyond what Joseph Smith said about it.
There are also Mormons who remain ignorant of Joseph Smith's involvement with polygamy, and especially polyandry. I'm not surprised by this because even the most historically literate don't have enough answers to piece together the complete puzzle perfectly. Some still accept it as a "doctrine" even if not currently practiced; others flat out reject it. But it's a part of our history that won't go away, so Mormons continue to be "puzzled" by it.

I'll borrow some words from blogger DKL (David King Landrith) and apply them to myself concerning the topic of plural marriage: "I'm just [a Mormon] that doesn't have a lot of answers. The scriptures depict Christ saying that we should all be like little children. I don't know what to make of this, except that we need to be comfortable being bewildered much of the time. In this one area, I'm absolutely confident of my faithfulness: I am bewildered much of the time."

To provide more transparent and accurate information--maybe a few more answers--The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints yesterday published a series of essays online about Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The essays aren't perfect (ex: presenting the angel with a flaming sword as perfectly logical/not problematic at all, interpreting "internal increase" as "eternal procreation", and suggesting definitively that "God commanded" plural marriage (even if it was an exception to the standard of monogamy) versus God allowing it, etc.), but it's a big step in the right direction. Those essays can be found here:
I appreciate the efforts of historians who try to help us make sense of the puzzle, but the one approach I may appreciate the most remains that of Julie Smith at Times and Seasons. Practically everything she blogs about is well worth reading, including her reaction to these essays, but especially worth reading is this old post: "Is There Another Approach?" The cliff notes version:

(1) Joseph Smith was devoted to the idea of restoration, which sparked his belief that polygamy needed to be restored.
(2) God permitted Joseph Smith to restore polygamy.
(3) When the cost of practicing polygamy became too high, it was ended by revelation.

Thankfully the current essays concede that even if it is "true" that God commanded plural marriage, the nitty-gritty details were generally left up to mortals to work out, and mortals tend to mess things up and get things wrong. Some mortals (prophets even) got so defensive of their "correctness" in living polygamy that they even taught that monogamy was the exception and polygamy was the celestial standard--an idea quite contrary to the Church's position today.

Brigham Young even went as far as to say that "monogamy, or restrictions by law to one wife, is no part of the economy of heaven among men. Such a system was commenced by the founders of the Roman empire...Thus this monogamic order of marriage, so esteemed by modern Christians as a holy sacrament and divine institution, is nothing but a system established by a set of robbers."

Riiiiight.

If you're one who can't embrace messiness in our history and like to have things "simple" and nice and tidy, good luck trying to make that fit with the Family Proclamation. And with men today who are sealed to an additional wife after their first wife has passed away, honestly it's anyone's guess as to what to make of married life in the hereafter!

(Of course, this wouldn't be the first time the Gospel Topics essays have distanced our current teachings from Brigham Young. See, for example, Race and the Priesthood.)

Yes, it gets quite messy, and it can become quite jarring to someone not used to the idea of prophets as human beings who can make serious mistakes. Still there are far too many people hearing "we cannot lead you astray" and interpreting that to mean the Brethren can never get things wrong. I like what Julie Smith has to say about that idea too. And Terryl Givens. And Phil Barlow. And especially Dieter Ucthdorf, who said "to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect...but He works through us—His imperfect children—and
imperfect people make mistakes."

I personally think polygamy could be one of those mistakes. Nevertheless, I wouldn't want to trespass on the faith and sacrifices of those sincere believers who felt they were trying to follow God's will.

It was nice that yesterday's essays acknowledged what "an excruciating ordeal" plural marriage was for Emma Smith, who "vacillated in her view of plural marriage, at some points supporting it and at other times denouncing it." The essays acknowledged that Doctrine and Covenants 132 listed "both glorious promises and stern warnings, some directed at Emma", though that is putting it mildly. The language in verse 54 was that she would be "destroyed". Some revelation! It's hard for me to believe a loving God threatening Emma would be "destroyed" if she didn't accept polygamy. Some Mormons might embrace this Old Testament-like voice of God without a problem. I tend to blame the heavy-handedness on the human filter dictating the revelation--and maybe not getting the language quite right. Hard to "feel the Spirit" in that section.

I personally don't accept all scripture as equally inspired. As Henry Eyring once said: "In this Church you have only to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is." And that is an individual quest.

The individual effort of sifting through "inspired" writings and teachings is one that I don't take lightly. I'm pretty picky these days. While I might be more picky than the average Mormon, we all make choices about what to accept and what to believe--there are too many contradictions in the records and even in scripture and the words of modern prophets to accept it all equally. Yes, I know that makes us all "cafeteria Mormons", but I much prefer to choose my own diet for myself rather than contracting out the responsibility of eating to others while making myself sick. It wouldn't be healthy to eat every single option at the buffet, and it's not possible to eat for someone else anyway. We each have to digest what we receive on our own. And because I really don't like feeling sick, I'll
continue, with others, to praise cafeteria Mormonism.

Even with the refreshing candor and openness displayed by the recent essays, it's practically impossible to pin down precisely the truth about polygamy, so I remain a committed "non-believer" about how that particular puzzle should or should not fit together. Sometimes I get sick of puzzles too.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

“Religion is belief in someone else's experience. Spirituality is having your own experience."


Spotlighting a post from my friend, Lon Young: Put Away Our Telescopes? Not a Chance! The Heavens are Calling


From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
From the laziness that is content with half-truths,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Oh God of Truth, deliver us.
~ Ancient Prayer


IN 1633, THE ROMAN INQUISITION CHARGED Galileo Galilei with heresy. His crime? Entertaining the notion that the sun “does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world,” and for espousing a theory deemed “false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scripture.”
While Galileo didn’t invent the heliocentric model of the universe, he discovered plenty of evidence for it. His own powerful telescopes were showing him things never before encountered, and mathematical reasoning confirmed what others, like Copernicus, had been saying. To a rational mind, there was no denying the soundness of the astronomer’s conclusion, but it was an inconvenient truth, to say the least, in an age where burning heretics, not fossil fuels, contributed most to global warming.

To be fair, scientists and philosophers, not just the Church, opposed him. But it was the Church with the power to coerce and intimidate. As the sole mediator of rites essential to salvation, God’s priestly representatives could strip Galileo of his eternal salvation. What could man do more?

I can imagine Galileo’s family and friends pleading with him to stop studying the heavens. It’s dangerous, they must have said. Put away your telescope.

Inquisitive Latter-day Saints hear that, too. Why study the night sky when its constellations have already been named, catalogued, and described in our Church-approved manuals? Why look at the heavens when Deseret Book publishes thousands of titles on Astronomy? There’s no need to look for yourself. And it could be dangerous: You could lose faith in the truthfulness of the Star Map. Put away your telescope.

And yet, like Galileo, the urge to know the truth by our own experience, to understand what’s really out there, compels us to look for ourselves. So we look. And then we begin to understand why there was so much institutional hand-wringing over what we might find.

We’re discovering some stars in the night sky that don’t correspond to the official Star Maps we’ve been issued at Church. Certain constellations have been left off the official charts, and it appears that some stars have even been redrawn to suggest patterns that aren’t present in a clear reading of the starry sky. Not only that, but those who’ve traveled far and wide report that what we see printed on our Star Maps constitutes only one perspective, from a Northern line of latitude, and that skywatchers in the Southern Hemisphere see an entirely different set of stars. The discrepancies are not easily dismissed.

We are confused.

We hear leaders telling us not to trust our own eyesight, to doubt our faculties of reason. We hear apologists pat us on the head and explain that there’s really no contradiction between what we’re seeing in our telescopes and what’s on our official Star Maps. Then we go to Church and hear people bearing testimony of the Star Map. And we sing, Praise to the Cartographer. And what we hear most of all is that we shouldn’t be looking through our own telescopes in the first place, but instead should exercise faith that the Star Map is True.

That last point prompts me to ask: Should we have testimonies of the Star Map and its Cartographers? Or should we have direct encounters with the Heavens they attempt to describe? Isn’t it rather like going to a restaurant and worshipping the menu instead of savoring the food?

I’VE BEEN AIMING MY OWN TELESCOPE at the spectacular cosmos that is Mormonism, collapsing its distance, but until recently I’ve been reluctant to share an honest account of what I’ve seen. For one thing, I realize my view is filtered through a particular lens, shaped by my personal and cultural biases, faulty reasoning powers, and limited perception. For another, I haven’t wanted to force anyone to look through the telescope with me, believing it’s the prerogative of each person to decide if and when they look for themselves. But mostly, it’s fear that has kept me–and so many like me–from giving an honest report of our experience. We stand much to lose by admitting that we see things differently. We are branded as arrogant, faithless, deluded, disloyal, and dangerous.

I get it. I’ve been there myself. By discrediting a person, we don’t have to grapple with the questions he or she raises. And when our most crucial claim as an institution is that we’re right about everything, it’s simply not permissible to allow someone to suggest we may be wrong about anything. The community protects itself from the vulnerability of uncertainty by marginalizing anyone who doesn’t reinforce their sense of certainty. And if there’s one thing out of which we Mormons fashion a Golden Calf, it’s our personal and collective certainty.

Fortunately, astronomical charts can be redrawn to more closely reflect reality. At the institutional level, curriculum and resources are being re-written to acknowledge some of the more egregious discrepancies between our traditional narratives and more honest tellings. No doubt, this change comes as the Church is hoping to earn back the trust of those who have been far more more troubled by the lack of openness than they are by a clear reading of the stars. I applaud this forthrightness for its own sake, and am persuaded that whenever institutions resist transparency they will lose credibility with Millennials for whom unrestricted access to information is seen as a birthright.

Call me crazy, but I still find value in those Star Maps. They fire my spiritual imagination. They bestow a mythic power on our collective narrative. And the awe they’ve instilled in me over so many years has become the prime motivator for me to seek my own direct, unmediated experience with the Universe.

Put away our telescopes? Not a chance. The Heavens are calling!
 ~

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Hugh B. Brown Benediction

The following excerpts come from the final chapter (9) of "An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown". Some very similarly expressed ideas first appeared in his previous speeches, and together represent some of the best of 20th-century Mormonism. While he didn't have the easiest of times being one of the few liberal voices among some very conservative apostles, I believe the church would be better off if his thoughts were more widely shared. I'm grateful his capacity to influence for good was expanded when he was called as a counsellor to David O. McKay in the First Presidency of the Church. 


"A Final Testimony"

There seems today to be a tendency towards flippant thinking, a lack of thought. There seems to be a tendency to belittle what our fathers and mothers thought because we feel we have made some progress scientifically. We are too ready to conclude that everything from past generations is now folly and that our main duty today, as far as the past is concerned, is to get away from it.

There is not enough of the attitude of the sincere investigator among us. When we come into a new field of research that will challenge our due and honest consideration, you should be warned against coming too quickly to a conclusion, of forming a decision too hastily. We should be scientific – that is, open-minded, approaching new problems without prejudice, deferring a decision until all the facts are in.

Some say the open-minded leave room for doubt. But I believe we should doubt some the things we hear. Doubt has a place if it can stir in one an interest to go out and find the truth for one's self. I should like to awaken in everyone a desire to investigate, to make an independent study of religion, and to know for themselves whether or not the teachings of the Mormon church are true....

There are altogether too many people in the world who are willing to accept as true whatever is printed in a book or delivered from a pulpit. Their faith never goes below the surface soil of authority. I plead with everyone I meet that they may drive their faith down through that soil and get hold of the solid truth, that they may be able to withstand the winds and storms of indecision and of doubt, the opposition and persecution. Then, and only then, will we be able to defend our religion successfully. When I speak of defending our religion, I do not mean such defense as an army makes on the battlefield but the defense of a clean and upright and virtuous life lived in harmony with an intelligent belief and understanding of the gospel. As Mormons, we should do with religion as we do with music, not defend it but simply render it. It needs no defense. The living of religion is, after all, the greatest sermon, and if all of us would live it, we would create a symphony which would be appreciated by all....

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has this practical view of religion: that religion should help us here and now; that we should not have to wait until after we are dead to get any benefits; that religion as understood and applied makes men and women more successful, happier, more contented, gives them aspiration and hope; that religion is the vitalizing force, religion is that which gives men and women and idea, an ideal so high that it may be seen from both sides of the valley of life. The religion of the Latter-day Saints teaches youth that as children of God, they are expected to acquire experience as they go through life and that experience will ripen into knowledge, that knowledge will ripen into wisdom and intelligence, and that their greatness will be in proportion to their intelligence.

So the religion of the Latter-day Saints is not just theory from a book or taught in church. The gospel is a plan of which God is the author, a plan of which we are all necessary parts.

My religion sweetens my life. My religion, if properly lived, helps me to be a better friend to my associates, a better neighbor, a better citizen, a better father, a better man. If I am sincere in it, my religion forbids me to do to my neighbors what I would not want them to do to me, either in word or act. My religion, in other words, is that which is the greatest part of me.

I have been very grateful that the freedom, dignity, and integrity of the individual are basic in church doctrine. We are free to think and express our opinions in the church. Fear will not stifle thought. God himself refuses to trammel free agency even though its exercise sometimes teaches painful lessons. Both creative science and revealed religion find their fullest and truest expression in the climate of freedom.

As we all proceed to make our individual "declarations of independence," I hope we can all distinguish between liberty and license, that we can realize that freedom is only a blessing if it is accompanied by wisdom and intelligence. At the same time, we all need to resist the down-drag of mental laziness which sometimes leads to the premature hardening of the intellectual arteries. And I would especially urge all of us to avoid sluggishness of spirit, which is the worst kind of lethargy. Some people are phlegmatic to a degree that would make a turtle seem intolerably vivacious.

I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent – if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression.

Both science and religion beget humility. Scientists and teachers of religion disagree among themselves on theological and other subjects. Even in our own church men and women take issue with one another and contend for their own interpretations. This free exchange of ideas is not to be deplored as long as men and women remain humble and teachable. Neither fear of consequence or any kind of coercion should ever be used to secure uniformity of thought in the church. People should express their problems and opinions and be unafraid to think without fear of consequences.

We should all be interested in academic research. We must go out on the research front and continue to explore the vast unknown. We should be in the forefront of learning in all fields, for revelation does not come only through the prophet of God nor only directly from heaven in visions or dreams. Revelation may come in the laboratory, out of the test tube, out of the thinking mind and the inquiring soul, out of search and research and prayer and inspiration. We must be unafraid to contend for what we are thinking and to combat error with truth in this divided and imperiled world, and we must do it with The unfaltering faith that God is still in his heaven even though all is not well with the world.


We should be dauntless in our pursuit of truth and resist all demands for unthinking conformity. No one would have us become mere tape recorders of other people's thoughts. We should be modest and teachable and seek to know the truth by study and faith. There have been times when progress was halted by thought control. Tolerance and truth demand that all be heard and that competing ideas be tested against each other so that the best, which might not always be our own, can prevail. Knowledge is most complete and dependable when all points of view are heard. We are in a world of restlessness and skepticism, where old things are not only challenge but often disappear, but also a world of miraculous achievement, undreamed of accomplishment, and terrifying power.

Science offers wonderful tools for helping to create the brotherhood of humanity on earth, but the cement of brotherhood does not come from any laboratory. It must come from the heart and mind and spirit of men and women...

One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking.

More thinking is required, and we should all exercise our God-given right to think and be unafraid to express our opinions, with proper respect for those to whom we talk and proper acknowledgement of our own shortcomings. We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it. The church is not so much concerned with whether the thoughts of its members are orthodox or heterodox as it is that they shall have thoughts. One may memorize much without learning anything. In this age of speed there seems to be little time for meditation.

While I speak of independence and the right to think, to agree or disagree, to examine and question, I need to remind myself not to forget that fixed and unchanging laws govern all God's creation, whether the vastness of the starry heavens or the minute revolving universe of the atom or human relationships. All is law. All is cause and effect, and God's laws are universal. God has no favorites; no one is immune from either life's temptations or the consequences of his or her deeds. God is not capricious.

An individual's reactions to the ever-changing impacts of life will depend upon his or her goals and ideals. Every life revolves around certain fundamental core ideas, whether we realize it or not, and herein lies the chief value of religion. But while I believe all that God has revealed, I am not quite sure I understand what he has revealed, and the fact that God has promised further revelation is to me a challenge to keep an open mind and be prepared to follow wherever my search for truth may lead.

We Mormons have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensible greater part of truth yet to be discovered. Revealed insights should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers – that we have a corner on truth. For we do not.

And while all members should respect, support, and heed the teachings of the authorities of the church, no one should except a statement and based his or her testimony upon it, no matter who makes it, until he or she has, under mature examination, found it to be true and worthwhile; then one's logical deductions may be confirmed by the spirit of revelation to his or her spirit, because real conversion must come from within.

I hope that the spirit of the Holy Ghost rests upon everyone and leads us all back into the presence of our heavenly parents. I hope that everyone might conduct his or her life in such a manner as to be worthy of God's continued blessings. And I especially hope that we might all be able, as we go forward, to walk figuratively and almost literally with our hand in God's hand and to feel the effect of God's presence in our lives, doing everything in Jesus' name and with God's blessings.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Faith, Hope, and Charity, even with Reduced Church Expectations

I recently finished reading Armand Mauss's memoir, "Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic". Aside from a few areas where I'm more liberal minded, I often felt throughout the book that he and I are kindred spirits. He offers a really healthy, candid, and refreshing perspective. This excerpt is the final two paragraphs of the book:

"So it is that I have continued to value my membership in the LDS church...and to give it my voluntary loyalty, even when I have believed church policies to be in error in certain respects and even on several occasions when I have felt personally offended. Well into my ninth decade of life, I have felt no more inclination to leave the church than I have felt to leave the nation, though, as I said, I have become disenchanted or disenthralled. Yet – and this is important – it has been precisely my disenchantment that has inoculated me against disillusionment, because of the concomitant reductions in my expectations. That is, an understanding of the church and its leaders as human and mortal has kept me from holding out unrealistic expectations for their performance. This has left me free to offer them my own support, loyalty, respect, and appreciation as fellow laborers in the vineyard, but not as contingent on an inerrant execution of their duties.

"When I have been critical of church policies, practices, or leaders, this kind of emotional detachment has also left me free to express myself, in fair and respectful terms, without an accompanying anger that might have led to my departure from the church. During those occasions, described in chapter 9, when I was called in by leaders for interviews about my publications, I was able to arrive without indignation, because I had long since learned to see the church as an impersonal bureaucracy, with the local leaders simply doing their best to cope with unpleasant responsibilities sometimes imposed on them by their roles. I entered these interviews expecting to be treated fairly. I was prepared to hear and consider criticism, but I was never obsequious. I saw my relationship to the church as separate from my relationship with Deity, so that if I were to be unfairly treated or disciplined by church leaders, I could count on Deity eventually to make things right. In these respects, I guess one could say that I have always tried to look on the church and its leaders with faith, hope, and charity, even while keeping my expectations modest. I suspect they might say the same about me."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Seeing beyond tobacco smoke and into the soul of a man


From page 71 of "An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown":

We had a wonderful stake organization and a lot of good wards. [As stake president in 1920s Canada] I tried to put into practice what Bishop Harris had taught me so many years earlier about tolerance, understanding, and seeing beyond the smoke a cigarette and into the soul of a man. To illustrate this, I would like to cite the following experience.

We had for sometime been looking for a bishop for the Tabor Ward – Tabor being a ward about 40 miles southeast of Lethbridge – but we could not find the right man on the records. We were acquainted with practically all of them, so the three of us – my two counselors and I – got in my car and started for Tabor. As we were driving along we beheld a car approaching us in the opposite direction. I immediately recognized the driver and hailed him to stop. He stopped and got out of the car. He was smoking a cigar.

After exchanging pleasant greetings and talking for a time, I said, "Burt, we want you to be the Bishop of the Tabor ward."

He held up his cigar and asked, "Hell, with this?"

I answered, "Hell, no. Without it."

He threw it down on the ground, stepped on it, and said, "By hell, I'll try it."

He never smoked again and became one of the best bishops we had. In fact, he did away with cigarette smoking entirely in his ward. This was an incident in which we were not bound by the strict rules of the law but could forgive and utilize the abilities of men despite some obvious weaknesses.