Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mormonism: A Sausage Makers Religion

A friend of mine, Christian Harrison--whom some bloggers may know as "Silus Grok"--first introduced me to the metaphor of the sausage maker in relation to Mormonism. Chew on this:
Do we prescribe bed rest and further enfeeble the weak minded? Or do we prescribe exercise and enjoin our siblings in faith to embrace a dynamic faith? Mormonism isn't an easy faith. It's the sausage maker's religion...Mormonism requires us to be active in making our own faith: an open canon, personal revelation, messy recent history, hard truths, prolific talks from leaders only a small number of which qualify as prophetic…you name it. We've signed up for a faith that is CONSTANTLY — RELIGIOUSLY, even — reinventing itself. And, like sausage making, it's not always a pretty picture. You have to get your hands dirty. And sometimes someone looses a finger. Mormonism, then, is a sausage makers' faith.
I was reminded of those astute words last week while reading Bryndis Robert's guest post at Flunking Sainthood. She's an attorney, an adult convert to the LDS Church from the Black Baptist faith, and she currently serves as a Relief Society President in Atlanta, Georgia. I find her voice perceptive and insightful. Below I only quote a portion of her words, but I endorse the entire post: 
I love sausage. However, I don’t like the sausage-making process. Through hands-on experience, I know that it’s ugly and messy. My family had a small farm where we raised chickens and hogs. Each fall, our rural community would get together for hog-killing day. Each person had a job. My job was to make the sausage. First, I had to choose which parts of the hog to use. Then, I had to wash the meat several times, chop it into chunks, and grind it (making sure not to lose any fingers in the process). Next, I had to mix and season the meat. I then had to stuff it into casings and form links or shape it into patties. So, what did I learn from that experience?
  • Making sausage requires time and manual dexterity. 
  • Not paying attention could cause me to injure myself. 
  • I had lots of choices of ingredients when making sausage. 
  • My choices determined the quality and taste of the sausage I made. 
The intersection of politics, social justice, and religion reminds me of making sausage. It’s an ugly and scary place to be. There’s the possibility of injury to the heart, mind, and soul. We have choices to make.  
As a member of the LDS Church, it has been difficult to watch the Church I love deal with this intersection—particularly on the issue of marriage equality and other rights for the LGBTQIA community. When the missionaries were teaching me, I was honest about my political and social views and the fact that I fall squarely in the Liberal or Progressive box. I was concerned about conflict between my political and social views and those of the Church. My missionaries pointed to the 12th Article of Faith and assured me that:
  • members of the Church covered the entire political spectrum; 
  • the Church encouraged members, as individuals, to be involved in the political process; and 
  • the Church, as an organization, did not interfere in the political process.
Bryndis goes on to say:
I don’t know all of the answers, but there are a few things I do know:
  • Navigating the intersection of politics, social justice, and religion requires a balance of courage, conviction, compassion, and compromise. 
  • I cannot rely on anyone, including any Church leader, to choose my beliefs. I must choose. 
  • I have to use my divinely given gifts of reasoning and intelligence to discern the correct course for me. 
  • My choices will determine the kind of person that I am.
I share these convictions and I confess that being a Mormon like this can indeed feel like a "meat grinder" at times. It's not always pleasant, but I still love meat. Despite the "eat meat sparingly" rhetoric of the Word of Wisdom, I'm admittedly a Mormon meat lover--both literally and metaphorically.

Sometimes when I start talking about or craving the metaphorical meat people respond as though I should be content with milk. I understand milk for an infant, but children of God are meant to grow up into adults of God. Therefore, I find it a little insulting (and thus resent) when I'm treated like an infant and also by how often it feels like I'm being force-fed milk after having become an adult.

I hope to always retain the best of the Christ-endorsed child-like qualities, but this doesn't mean I continue to have a child-like relationship with the Church. Like Paul, I've grown up and "put away childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11.) I've matured in my faith and as I've done so I've also come to have a more mature understanding of scripture. As Terryl Givens put it, "Scripture is a human manifestation of an impulse toward and from the divine. One can't expect textual flawlessness."

It can be a bit frightening to realize that all of God's most objective truths are always evaluated subjectively. It's initially jarring to realize that there is no such thing as unmediated revelation--that it always comes through a human filter. So while I continue to choose faith and to trust God, I no longer equate "LDS priesthood authorities" with God. I trust mortal leaders to do their best to seek inspiration, but I'm not trusting them to give us unfiltered or unmediated revelation. Everything that comes to us comes through our human experience, our human language, and human culture. And we "see through a glass darkly". 

Once upon a time I took comfort in believing there was an infallible standard I could rely on. Similar to how Armand Mauss shifted his faith paradigms as he came to understand the social construct of reality, my paradigm now places emphasis on choice--choosing to believe--relying on my own conscience as the final authority for how to live my life. Terryl Givens has explained it this way:

“We want a standard that is infallible because it relieves us of the burden of continually exerting ourselves to use discernment. The way that Dostoyevsky put it so beautifully is that 'We want some person to be a keeper of our conscience'. The hard lesson is that there is never a moment when you can delegate your own volition to another individual.”

Unfortunately I continue to meet many self-proclaimed "orthodox" Saints who take issue with this approach because in their paradigm it lowers the importance of apostles and prophets. By pointing out the need to use individual discernment and rely on our own conscience (our individual best effort to understand the will of God) some have even implied that I'm "attacking" the apostles and prophets, regardless of whether or not they're even "acting as such."

When I refuse to put church leaders up on a pedestal, no one needs to pin evil motives on me or assume I think the apostles are "evil" or "sinister"(words I've seen used.) That would just be crazy talk. I've never in my life even implied such a thing as this. My theory is that this crazy talk is born out of a misunderstanding of what it really means to "sustain" our leaders--but thankfully Christian Harrison has more insight to share on that important topic as well.  In reality the only really crazy thing I can see is how many Mormons want to be "relieved of the burden of individual discernment."

I can understand why people could be initially uncomfortable with individual discernment--the process can involve doubt and uncertainty, and doubt and uncertainty make a lot of people nervous. There are some folks who get nervous when they realize they have to think for themselves and follow their conscience rather than just "follow the leader." I think these folks have yet to learn the "the hard lesson", as Terryl Givens said, that there is never a moment when you can delegate your own volition to another individual leader. This is why Bryndis' words resonate as though they were my personal manifesto:
  • I cannot rely on anyone, including any Church leader, to choose my beliefs. I must choose. 
  • I have to use my divinely given gifts of reasoning and intelligence to discern the correct course for me. 
  • My choices will determine the kind of person that I am.
The sausage making process can make people uncomfortable. It can be messy. But we must embrace the messiness if we're to be faithful to reality. We belong to a sausage makers religion. Can we please stop pretending that things are always clean and tidy as though we're still infants who can't handle the meat? Let's just get comfortable with the idea that we're not always going to be comfortable in a world of ambiguity and uncertainty and get on with the good news of embracing faith and grace.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Dear Elder Christofferson

Dear Elder Christofferson, you recently stated:

We hope our members will be part of the conversation going forward and let their voices be heard in civil and respectful communications with legislators and others. With more and more people of good will involved, we believe the right balance can be struck.”

I hope I can achieve the right balance here in letting my voice be heard, even if I'm not directly addressing "legislators." By way of introduction, I could very likely be accurately described as a progressive member of the Church--a Liahona Mormon, if you will. But more importantly than that, I want to live so that I could accurately be described as a disciple of Christ. Whatever the forum, hopefully mine is a voice that will "be heard in civil and respectful communications," since regardless of how successful I am in actual implementation, it is my hearts sincere desire to be civil and respectful.

It's not always easy to strike "the right balance" when people have such different expectations of what the right balance is, especially as I find myself in the minority among church members who happen to share a desire for civil marriage equality in the United States. Of course it's no surprise there's a diversity and pluralism even within the church, and I'm going to take your word that you want to allow members of good will--both sides--to be civilly involved and free to voice their conscience. As you expressed in your recent Trib Talk interview
We have members in the Church with a variety of different opinions and beliefs and positions on these issues…but…in our view it doesn’t become a problem unless someone is out attacking the church and its leaders, trying to get others to follow them, to draw others away, trying to pull people out of the church, or away from its teachings and doctrines. That’s very different for us, than someone who feels one way or another on a political stance or a particular action to support a group, Affirmation, or any others [such as Ordain Women or Mormons Building Bridges] that you named.
If I ever say something that sounds disrespectful, I will apologize and recommit to striking the right tone to maintain "the right balance." I don't want to be perceived as "attacking" someone just for disagreeing with them. I fear that some members of the church assume that it's inherently disrespectful of me to voice a disagreeing opinion, but my love is greater than my fear, so I proceed. I have no desire to be critical, though I wish to critique a few things I just read today. Even so, I desire to sustain and love you in all the ways I can, even if I cannot always agree on every issue.

President Hugh B. Brown once said:
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.
Hugh B. Brown is one of my heroes. I too admire those with "the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas" or of respectfully disagreeing with ideas that don't quite resonate with their informed moral compass. Likewise, I also have great admiration for you and your family, specifically your brother Tom and your parents, who quite soon after Tom came out determined "that nothing would be allowed to break the circle of love that binds all of us together as a family" and expressed that "while none of us is perfect as individuals, we can be perfect in our unconditional love for each other." In my mind the Christoffersons are an incandescent example of putting family first before dogma, their loving example every bit worthy of being included in the Family Acceptance Project.

In that spirit of love, I express my commitment and desire to give you the benefit of the doubt. Regardless of any mistakes, I grant you "extra leeway," as Professor Faulconer put it recently in his blog post "Living With Fallibility": "I give people I love and respect more room for mistakes than I do others. My children can do a lot more than can strangers before I lose faith in them. People whom I have had good experiences with previously also get extra leeway. And if I sincerely believe that a person has been called by God, I am willing to continue to trust them though I am aware of their failings."

I'm not sure how accurately the words I read today reflect your heart, but they did cause me some concern. If I must respectfully dissent than I do so with the confidence that ultimately the truth will prevail. As President Hal Eyring's father Henry once said: "In this Church you have only to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is." I take that responsibility as seriously as if I were a pioneer, for "where truth flies you follow If you are a pioneer."

Anytime I hear someone express with great certainty that they "know" something to be "true" (regardless of whether it can or can't be proven to be true), I take the liberty of reassuring myself that what they really mean is that they strongly believe it to be true. For even objective truth is always evaluated subjectively. Mormons have historically, of course, expressed with great certainty things they "know" to be "true". In recent years I've become much more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. I walk by faith, not certainty.

Many well-meaning Mormon leaders of the past have spoken with great certainty, even authoritatively, but had to recant their words once they received further light and knowledge. Forgiveness is a form of grace I willingly offer our fallible leaders. Yet along with my willingness to forgive, I cannot forget that my church leaders are not infallible. Because of my understanding of history and because of my faith, even anxious expectation for ongoing revelation and greater light and knowledge, I never want to put a period where perhaps God has intended a comma.  I still expect many great and important things to be revealed and/or clarified because our understanding of doctrinal teachings is constantly evolving. Of all religious people, Mormons should never say "never."

According to the Church News report you recently said that we should all be sensitive as "we humbly seek greater understanding," and I definitely agree with that. However, you then seemed to express certainty about an area I hope we can still humbly achieve greater understanding and in which I still see room for greater light and knowledge. I specifically have in mind how our LGBT brothers and sisters have in the past, currently, and in the future, aligned/align with the law of chastity.

As you acknowledged, there are voices saying that the current standards of chastity and morality as taught in the Church are wrong and should not apply in their lives. Mine has not been one of those voices, but I don't judge someone for thinking that, since historically the LDS Church has been wrong about some teachings (for example, Race and the Priesthood). Furthermore, some very important standards have changed as we went from accepting monogamy to reluctantly embracing polygamy, then to toting polygamy as a requirement for the celestial kingdom and even calling monogamy evil and a curse, then reluctantly going back to monogamy and eventually even excommunicating people for practicing polygamy, and now embracing monogamy as the Lord's true and unchanging standard.

Keeping our dizzying past in mind, these "voices" should be forgiven for expressing doubt about your quote: “Some even suppose that those standards will someday change. That is simply not true." Likewise, with the past in mind, there may be legitimate doubt with the Church trying to maintain the Lord’s standard. I have faith that the Lord's standard is the way “a fulness of happiness” can be found in this life and throughout eternity, as you said. But because so many standards have changed with the times, I think you can understand why I would express doubt that the Church's standards are always perfectly aligned with and representative of the Lord's standards.

I'm all for the Lord's standards. I don't think the Lord's standard changes. However, I think our collective understanding (and the Church's understanding) of His standards do change. Our collective understanding of and dealing with homosexuality and the gospel have already changed in recent decades, and most definitely for the better. I'm convinced we're closer today to understanding and acting how the Lord would have us think and act in regards to our LGBT brothers and sisters. My stake president agrees with this last point too. I emailed him a link to a genuinely impressive article published just two days ago in BYU's "Universe" and my stake president (who is a loving and wonderful friend and the kind of leader of whom you would be very proud), replied back: "That was a great article. We really are coming along and living closer to what The Savior wants us to be."

While I agree with my stake president that we're getting closer, I'm not convinced we've arrived quite to where the Lord would have us be. Moreover, I'm sensitive, as I'm sure you are, to all the times we Latter-day Saints have fallen short in our treatment of our LGBT members and neighbors. I feel genuinely sorry for any pain we have caused. I'm also aware of active LDS gay members reactions to the press conference you recently held with the media and respect their voice too.

I've recently been reading "This Is My Doctrine": The Development of Mormon Theology. Perhaps because of this I'm extra sensitive to hearing people say that "doctrine never changes" or "will never change", because in reality practically all of our doctrines (even the nature of God) have evolved and changed over time, even since the beginning of the Restoration. Because I assume you're also aware of this, I'll grant that you may be using a different definition of "doctrine," which is not uncommon in my experience. But I think we both agree that the Lord's standards don't change. The only thing that changes is our understanding of His will, His standards, His doctrine.

Of course those not of our faith--the majority of human beings both gay and straight (or those anywhere in-between on the Kinsey scale)--have no reason to trust the LDS Church to tell them what "the Lord's standard" is. I think most Americans are perfectly willing to allow religious freedom as long as that freedom is not used to infringe on the rights or freedom of other citizens, or used as a cloak for discrimination. Naturally we all have different opinions and positions, even among traditional and non-traditional Christians (Mormons included.) As I'm sure you are well aware, many LDS apostles have even held a variety of views and interpretations on matters of revelation and scripture, holding beliefs in opposition to fellow apostles. "In essentials let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, charity." Granted, informed members of our faith can even sometimes disagree on what constitutes the essentials too. C'est la vie in a church absent infallibility.

Therefore, while I trust the Church of Jesus Christ to seek Christ and be a community of support to those of us in the church, I do not trust the Church to be a reservoir of infallible truth. Again, all truth, even objective truth, is evaluated subjectively. As Dr. Phil Barlow has put it, "the church is made up entirely of human beings" striving in faith to seek the divine. Because we're all fallible humans who make up the church, "faith is misconstrued when we think of the church as essentially divine marred only by a few freckles or difficulties, but rather is better conceived of as made up entirely of human beings (with everything that implies, and it implies a great deal)…from top to bottom and from Joseph Smith on, who are trying to respond to the divine with which they've been touched in faith."

I believe Saints who trust Salt Lake to give them all the right answers or God's direction for their individual lives are putting their trust in the wrong source. I certainly don't give those leading the church that much control or power over my life. As I've written before, "I now recognize that I am in the drivers seat of my own search for the divine--not the Church™. I can be myself and embrace all the truths I find in the world, right where I am--while Mormon. If the culture were to ever make me feel like I couldn't do this, or embrace what apostle and former member of the First Presidency Hugh B Brown called "An Eternal Quest--Freedom of the Mind", or tolerate me as a free thinker, than I would no longer find that culture worth belonging to."

As a free-thinking Mormon I may not always feel comfortable at church, but I never question whether I belong. Now some conservative conformists may question whether I belong in the church, but this is not their church any more than it is my church. And if ultimately it's the Savior's church, I'd prefer that He be the one to judge if I belong in the church rather than a fallible bishop or stake president who may or may not share my thoughts or feelings or understand where I'm coming from and who may very well use his position to coerce me or threaten my removal from the body of Christ.

This possibility has been on my mind lately, especially as "excommunication looms over Mormons grappling with some of [the] church's tenets." I understand you've expressed great confidence in bishops and stake presidents who attempt to judge worthiness and qualification to participate in the ordinances and sacraments of the Church. We do indeed have many great bishops and stake presidents. But I confess, for me it's hard to think them capable of judging matters of eternal importance when I believe only God is capable of being the perfect judge. Some mortal judges are much better equipped than others. Therefore, Elder Christofferson, I'm not sure I place the same degree of confidence in authorities as you seem to. I've witnessed too much ecclesiastical roulette to have unshaken confidence in ecclesiastical leaders. I regret to say that I don't even have an equal degree of confidence in your fellow quorum members. In fact, I worry the church community as a whole may be placing too much power and confidence in authority.

I only look to God's perfection to expect perfection. But even then, my understanding is perhaps best articulated by the late BYU historian, Richard Poll:
James Madison cautioned: "When the Almighty Himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, His meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated." Because I believe, with Madison, that everyone, including Paul and the other prophets, saw eternity, or sees eternity through a glass darkly, prophetic infallibility, scriptural inerrancy, and unquestioning obedience are not elements in my faith.
I don't personally ever expect to have to face church discipline, because my heart's in the right place, and to my knowledge I haven't said or done anything wrong. If I have, I'd be happy to be corrected. Yet the possibility, under the current system, exists. So even if I were the one conducting any formal or informal discipline, I would do so with great uneasiness and want to error on the side of charity and tolerance and inclusivity. Speaking of errors, the Church News reported that you added "if there are significant errors that may occur in the judgment process—and they will be rare—there is an opportunity for appeal to correct any such mistakes."

My question for you is how you can be so confident that these "errors" would be "rare?" My reading of Doctrine and Covenants 121:39 suggests to me that it would be more rare that errors not often occur, since, "we have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion."

I fully believe most priesthood leaders read Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-42 and sincerely desire to lead in their calling "by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile." Yet, because it is "the nature and disposition" of almost all of them to be easily prone to "unrighteous dominion", I also have a healthy respect for the fact that "many are called, but few are chosen."

When friends for whom I feel love and respect are expunged from the body of Christ by well-intended but fallible ecclesiastical leaders, and the decisions of those ecclesiastical leaders are generally trusted, upheld, and appeals denied because church leaders want to express confidence and trust in local leadership, then essentially you're granting local leaders a degree of infallibility just without saying the word. Of course I can't speak with much confidence about the appeals process because it is so secretive, and also because I've never personally had anything to appeal, but nothing in the current system gives me much confidence that the institution of the Church wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice one to save the ninety and nine. 

But I digress. Back to the point of expressing with confidence that our doctrine, particularly our understanding of the law of chastity, will "never change," I only wish you might read and consider what conservative law professor and LDS blogger Nathan Oman wrote several years ago:
Ultimately, I think that gay marriage is a good idea. I think that recognizing gay marriage has the potential to create stronger gay families and a better environment to grow up in for the children of homosexuals. It also carries within itself the possibility for an ethic of gay chastity, which ultimately strikes me as superior to either gay celibacy or gay promiscuity. I understand that in its fullest religious sense, gay chastity for Latter-day Saints (as opposed to gay celibacy) requires revelation to those with greater religious authority than I, and I am comfortable sustaining that authority. Nevertheless, in my all-things-considered independent judgment, gay chastity is a good idea.
I too think an ethic of gay chastity is a good idea. It would be good for the church to draw a distinction between two good and committed Saints who, according to their sexual orientation--which they cannot change--desire to be legally and lawfully married, as compared to others who live promiscuously without any divinely led commitment of being faithful to their companion. "The Doctrine of Celibacy" is another matter. The "Doctrine of Chastity" would remain in place and indeed, the law of chastity would never go away, but I could foresee our understanding of it evolving and changing if we're open to receiving greater light and knowledge.

When I read President Dieter Uchtdorf's wise words I personally include our current understanding of human sexuality: 
Brothers and sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?
I hope we Mormons never place an iron gate between us and our Heavenly Father. While His constant love for His children is certain not to change, historically speaking, the only constant thing about Mormonism is change, and that's one thing I personally love about Mormonism. May we embrace the lessons of history and have faith in the future, regardless of its uncertainty.

I appreciate that the Church today is calling for “fairness to all”, an end to discrimination where it exists, while at the same time, desiring to protect the liberty of people of conscience “to live fully loyal to their conscience,” as you put it. I agree with this wholeheartedly. Though I sometimes wonder what would have happened to me had I lived before the 1978 Church revelation on the priesthood, especially if my conscience had told me that the temple and priesthood restrictions based on race were wrong. How comfortable would I have been if I were expected to remain silent and passively wait for church leaders to receive revelation? Would it have been appropriate to civilly and respectfully voice my desires for change?

I imagine pre-1978 there were some Latter-day Saints whose conscience led them to feeling embarrassed by the church's dogmatic adherence to what was believed to be "doctrine" from God, constant and unchanging. Yet today the Church recognizes that its pre-1978 policies based on what was once considered doctrine were wrong and "disavows the theories advanced in the past." Forgotten in the collateral damage are good folks like Dr. Lowry Nelson. I'm pained as I read the correspondence between Dr. Nelson and Church Headquarters, especially in light of how history has completely vindicated Brother Nelson.

Today, in this new Civil Rights era for the LGBT community, I'm afraid that my conscience and the position of officials currently leading the church might also be at odds. So I'm in a bit of a precarious position. I wait patiently, though not passively, and encourage progress in areas that I can, while trying to be anxiously engaged in good causes and follow my conscience without causing harm to the church. Sometimes I wonder, though, how long I can continue in good faith and enough patience before feeling embarrassed about my church's current position, similarly to those who felt embarrassed by the church's pre-1978 position. Granted, these are two separate issues entirely, but there are also many similarities. Saying that something will "never change" is a theory that may or may not prove to be correct.

I fully understand that I'm in no position to make any change, but the more I see a need for change the more I want to have hope for it and desire it. Whether it's this issue or the issue of gender equality, I ask questions and hope I have the strength to patiently wait for desired changes. I'm inspired by God's loving and kind example as he waits patiently and lovingly for us to correct our perspectives and figure out His will for ourselves. But I'm also keenly aware of what President Kimball once wrote in a letter to his son Ed: "Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired. I think few people receive revelations while lounging on a couch."

Whether that change comes sooner than expected or never comes at all, either way, I will be at peace knowing I was fully loyal to my conscience.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"'A Prophet is not always a Prophet' only when he is acting as such"

Joseph Smith wrote in his diary on February 8th, 1843: “'A Prophet is not always a Prophet' only when he is acting as such."

Today there are plenty of folks who could still learn a thing or two from Brother Joseph. While Latter-day Saints continue to sustain one man as "prophet, seer, and revelator, and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints", historically these four roles haven't exactly resembled what they once did whenever Joseph Smith acted "as such."

Leading the modern Church with it's accompanying bureaucracy calls for 24/7 administration ("the office of the President") but the firehose of revelation that came forth in Joseph's day isn't exactly gushing out the "prophet, seer, and revelator" roles as much as the "President of the Church" role. We still sustain men who hold the keys to "act as such", but regardless of whether you speak for God or whether you're a chef with the "keys" to a great kitchen, the proof will always be in the pudding.

The modern rhetoric of "follow the prophet" is usually packaged with a period instead of the comma Joseph Smith seemed to be suggesting. We should follow the prophet, whenever the prophet is acting as a prophet. But when's the last time you asked yourself when or if the prophet "is acting as such"?

Granted, Joseph Smith didn't elaborate much on how we're to differentiate when exactly a prophet is acting as a prophet, as opposed to say, acting in the role or full-time office of church president. The work of differentiation is left up to each individual, and it's not the kind of responsibility or work we can outsource to others or expect the corporation of the Church or the PRetheren to confirm in a press release. We must each seek the Lord's will, "study it out in [our] mind," prayerfully seek personal revelation, inspiration, and the Spirit. We don't just take someone else's word for it, we go directly to the source and let the Holy Spirit guide us directly to Christ. In essence, it's real work.

Unfortunately a lot of us don't like doing that work for ourselves. We often want it to be easy or trust some middle-man to do it for us. It's tempting to want to go on autopilot and not take the risk of doing the mental and spiritual work for yourself. Otherwise well-intended disciples of Christ become instead disciples of the prophet who "follow the prophet" with great conviction but not much differentiation of if or when a prophet is acting as such. Is it possible that some Latter-day Saints thus put too much weight on their faith and trust in a man ("the arm of the flesh") rather than in Christ?

Before the "new" primary songbook came out in 1989, Duane Hiatt was asked to write a happy song "about Old Testament prophets" that would sound "like a Jewish Folk Song"--fun for the children to sing. He came up with some clever verses, such as this one:

"Jonah was a prophet, tried to run away,
But he later learned to listen and obey.
When we really try, the Lord won't let us fail:
That's what Jonah learned deep down inside the whale

Each verse was then followed by the following chorus:

"Follow the prophet, follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet; don't go astray.
Follow the prophet, follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet; he knows the way

The song is extremely successful in teaching children one part of the equation--to follow "the prophet," but when do the children learn the next part of the equation? When do we teach them how to discern when or if a prophet is acting as a prophet? My concern is that our church community has largely defaulted on that part of the equation and children then grow into adults at risk of worshiping the idol of infallible leadership.

I understand that children can't be expected to master calculus before they've learned basic arithmetic. But if we truly want to "keep things simple" and avoid teaching the complexities of discerning when a prophet is actually acting as a prophet, I offer my alternative chorus free of charge:

Follow the Savior, follow the Savior, follow the Savior
Don’t go astray
Follow the Savior, follow the savior, follow the Savior,
He is the Way! 

I first came up with that alternative chorus while writing the blog post "Follow the…" in which I first voiced some personal reservations. After all, unless you're reading this "correlated version", the scriptures never actually include the words "follow the prophet." The actual Doctrine of Christ emphasizes "Follow the Son." And thankfully primary children do already have many wonderful and scripturally sound songs about trying to be like Jesus and following in his waysfeeling the Savior's love, and lovingly expressing commitment to "follow [Him] faithfully".

If I belonged to the Church of the Prophets than I wouldn't even be concerned, but because this is the professed Church of Jesus Christ, it would be reasonable to teach primarily more of Christ and loyalty to Him rather than loyalty to following mortal prophets and risk turning children into unthinking lemmings, or into grown adults unable to process Joseph Smith's teaching that a prophet is not always a prophet--only when acting as such.

At some point in time children of God must become adults of God and the training wheels have to come off. An online friend who recognizes this truth recently wrote some new lyrics for an additional verse to "Follow the Prophet." I highly recommend them: 

"Our inspired prophets sometimes make mistakes
Never blindly follow, caution we must take
It is up to us to know how to discern
In our search for truth we still have much to learn!"

Once upon a time, after reading the 14th chapter of Ezekiel, Joseph Smith "said the Lord had declared by the Prophet [Ezekiel], that the people should each stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish Church – that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls – applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall– that they were depending on the Prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves…" (TPJS, pg. 237-238)

Truly, it is up to us to know how to discern, and in our search for truth we all still have much to learn.

Another friend put it this way: "I believe in the divinely-sanctioned role of prophets and I love the brethren, but I see that we are simply repeating the mistakes of the past by failing to believe that we can connect with heaven on our own. NOBODY comes between you and the Lord. That is the beauty of the story of a 14-year-old boy who asked of the Lord in faith and entered into His presence to receive truth for himself."

That really is a beautiful truth. That is good news. Actually, I like best how Adam Miller put it:

This is both the good news and the bad news. While it is scary to think that God works through weak, partial, and limited mortals like us, the only thing scarier would be thinking that he doesn't. It's a false dilemma to claim that either God works through flawless people or God doesn't work at all. The gospel isn't a celebration of God's power to work with flawless people. The gospel is a celebration of God's willingness to work today, in our world, in our lives, with people who clearly aren't. To demand that church leaders, past or present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel's most basic claim: that God's grace works through our weakness. We need prophets, not idols. Our prophets and leaders will not turn out to be who you want them to be. They are not, in fact, even what God might want them to be. But they are real and God really can, nonetheless, work through their imperfections to extend his perfect love.

Friday, January 23, 2015

"How in the world in the 21st century is a church asking people not to talk openly about things?"

I struggle to always express things gracefully and diplomatically; regardless, I have sworn with Thomas Jefferson "upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." So this quote from John Dehlin on the Salt Lake Tribune's "Trib Talk" really resonated with me:

"How in the world in the 21st century is a church asking people not to talk openly about things? And I want to be really clear about something. People say that I'm talking openly about my doubts and disbelief and giving voice to doubters because I'm trying to tear people away from the church. That is so wrong. I'm a mental health professional. I'm a few months away from getting my PhD in clinical and counseling psychology. I counsel Mormons everyday. And what I can tell you is that, by far, probably one of the most damaging aspects of Mormon culture is the fact that they need to keep things hidden, they keep things secret, and they can't openly discuss what they think and what they feel. I think this leads to depression, I think it leads to anxiety, I think it leads ostracization and marginalization, and I think it can even lead to suicide and things more serious. And so it is totally unacceptable for a church leader to say to me "you can support same-sex marriage but you can't speak openly about your support", "you can support Ordain Women but don't ever tell anybody", "you can have doubts, but you can't speak openly about those doubts." I think that's a recipe for mental illness and sadness, and frankly, it doesn't engender a community that's meaningful where people are able to share their heart and their soul with each other. It's not going to be a backbone for the church culturally that's going to lead to vibrance and vitality when an organization like the church starts to use sort of Stalinist techniques or Maoist techniques to clamp down on information, to prevent people from talking, to punish people if they speak openly. That leads to the death of community, to conscience, to people's mental health and well-being, and I would much rather be disciplined than violate my conscience."

29:05--30:31 minute mark

*Also relevant is the story of Sterling McMurrin and David O. McKay: See "Heretical Beliefs and Feeling Welcome in the Church"

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Adam Miller on Flawed Prophets

From Adam S. Miller's chapter on History (pages 47 through 49 of "Letters to a Young Mormon"):

This is both the good news and the bad news. While it is scary to think that God works through weak, partial, and limited mortals like us, the only thing scarier would be thinking that he doesn't.

It's a false dilemma to claim that either God works through flawless people or God doesn't work at all. The gospel isn't a celebration of God's power to work with flawless people. The gospel is a celebration of God's willingness to work today, in our world, in our lives, with people who clearly aren't. To demand that church leaders, past or present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel's most basic claim: that God's grace works through our weakness. We need prophets, not idols. Our prophets and leaders will not turn out to be who you want them to be. They are not, in fact, even what God might want them to be. But they are real and God really can, nonetheless, work through their imperfections to extend his perfect love.

Our church manuals and church histories are sometimes shy about this good news. With good intentions, they worry over your faith. Sometimes they seem too much like that friend of a friend who really just wants you to like them, and so they pretend to only like the same things they think you do. But God is stronger stuff than this. And the scriptures certainly are as well. If, as the bible makes clear, God can work through liars, thieves, adulterers, murderers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and beggars, he can certainly work around (or even through) Joseph Smith's clandestine practice of polygamy, Brigham Young's strong-armed experiments in theocracy, or George Albert Smith's mental illness.

In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus innocently compared the kingdom of God to "a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree; and the birds of the air made nests in its branches" (Luke 13:19 NRSV). This is a nice story, but we've forgotten about mustard seeds. It would have been plain to Jesus' audience that this parable was meant to vex them. People have big ideas about what the kingdom of God is supposed to be like, but teeny tiny mustard seeds like Jesus described don't grow into towering cedars. Generally, they don't amount to much more then overgrown bushes. More, Jesus' audience would have known that mustard plants aren't typically grown in gardens. When growing a garden, you're more likely to spend your time weeding them out. Rather than being a cash crop, mustard plants are more like stubborn weeds liable to hijack your whole plot. Jesus means this parable as a kind of warning. Don't expect, Jesus says, the kingdom of God to look like a massive oak tree. Expect it to be more like a weed that, without your quite intending it, overruns your garden and crowds out the stories you'd been hoping to tell.

At some point, God will ask you to sacrifice on his alter not only your stories about your own life but your versions of his stories as well. Your softly lit watercolor felt-board versions of scripture stories and church history must, like all the stories, be abandoned at his feet, and the messy, vibrant, and inconvenient truths that characterize God's real work with real people will have to take center stage. If they don't, then how will God's work in your hungry, messy, and inconvenient life ever do the same?

When God knocks, don't creep up to the door and look through the peephole to see if he looks like you thought he would. Rush to the door and throw it open.

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.

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

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

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

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,

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."


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.