Thursday, October 1, 2015

LDS General Conference Is Great...Except For The Bad Parts

A metaphor for the Church itself?

Most Mormons view General Conference as quite a treat--I typically do. It's a special treat to stay home and watch conference in my pajamas on my comfortable leather couch. It's also a treat to spend uninterrupted hours with my family while seeking goodness, truth, and inspiration. For me personally, that goodness and inspiration comes most often in the form of the music we hear in General Conference. My experience has been that General Conference music is routinely exceptional--sometimes even supernal (a word sometimes used in conjunction with General Conference.) And from time to time there are a few talks that even reach that point for me. For example, these four from our last General Conference:
Of the latter I could hardly wait to blog about how it was itself a grace to me, like an oasis in the desert. I'm well aware, however, that since we all bring different background knowledge, experience, and even different lenses with us to General Conference, a "great" message to one can fall flat for another. This was brought home to me recently when my brother shared a talk he liked from that same conference in our family group text--Which Way Do You Face?. I didn't want to be a Debbie Downer, but my first instinct was to cringe and think of the Mormonad above. I decided, in the interest of fairness, I should re-read the talk to give it a second chance. There was, indeed, more relatively good stuff than I had remembered. My memory had only held onto the parts that had caused me concern. More on this in a minute.

First a disclaimer. I know most people aren't accustomed to watching General Conference like a film critic watches a movie, but it's a natural occupational hazard for those of us who've undergone a faith transition/transformation. I like the term "transformation" because I think of the metaphor of the caterpillar in its cocoon. The transformation can initially feel dark and lonely but like a butterfly, my personal faith came out on the other end more nuanced, colorful, and even beautiful. I admit it can be frustrating at times still when I encounter those who think I should act more like a caterpillar than the butterfly that's since taken flight.

I still use both my "mind and heart" in order to discern inspiration amongst the hours we spend in the buffet of messages known as General Conference. It's just that I can't quite bring myself to share in the same joy expressed by others who view everything in General Conference as "modern day revelation." My standard for "revelation" is much higher than that, and I would argue that Joseph Smith set the bar pretty high by publishing his revelations for all the world to see. Of course, one could claim that the LDS Church publishes the Ensign magazine for all the world to see, but what I clearly see is a huge difference between the revelations published in the Standard Works and what's published in the Ensign. Considering how little we Latter-day Saints have added to our "open" cannon since Joseph's day (at least the Brighamite branch of the Restoration movement), perhaps the "revelation" bar is too high for today's "prophets, seers, and revelators."

That's not to say that I can't enjoy goodness and inspiration in General Conference. It's just harder when I can't automatically take it all in as equally inspired. There's a lot of "good" in my church sundae, to be sure. But there's some very conspicuous "bad" that I cannot simply ignore.

As I follow the dictates of my conscience, I choose to magnify my individual responsibility to discern if what I'm hearing over the pulpit at any given time actually represents the mind and will of God. It's not an easy job, and naturally it's a subjective process, but all religion is subjective--all of it. And religion isn't supposed to be easy. It's supposed to challenge us, change us, and transform us into more compassionate beings--not passive sheep.

Neither am I passive while watching General Conference. Sometimes there are sermons meant to challenge us, and sometimes there are sermons that ought to be challenged. And as I read over the sermon my brother had recommended I found things that indeed resonated with me and that I generally found inspiring. This quote, for example, was great and still resonates with me: "Trying to please others before pleasing God is inverting the first and second great commandments." That's great advice to put God first over other men/women, and I include in that even institutions such as the LDS Church.

But I also found some things that caused me concern. The first cringe moment came in the form of a quote by the late Boyd K. Packer: “A Seventy does not represent the people to the prophet but the prophet to the people. Never forget which way you face!” This viewpoint is one of a top-down-only hierarchy--a viewpoint which happens to be one of the things I least like about the current institutional church. That top-down-only attitude completely misses an opportunity to have good counsel between everybody else not already in the leadership-hierarchy flow chart. It also contradicts the way things are supposed to work at the local level in terms of ward and stake councils.

But I had stronger reservations with this part: "Thinking one can please God and at the same time condone the disobedience of men isn’t neutrality but duplicity, or being two-faced or trying to “serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24; 3 Nephi 13:24). The obsession with making clear what you condemn or condone in others gets in the way of true compassion, and I believe that can be sin in and of itself. I don't accept the false dichotomy that you're either "for us or against us", the conflation of prophets with God (implied throughout), and also the preoccupation with righteousness and purity.

While Mormons traditionally place much emphasis on righteousness and purity, Jesus himself was historically subversive to the righteousness/purity system of the contemporary religious establishment. I saw this very clearly while reading Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. "Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the community that mirrors God" (Borg, p. 54.) In other words, "an interpretation of scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity." Borg uses a specific example on page 59:
I am convinced that much of the strongly negative attitude toward homosexuality on the part of some Christians has arisen because, in addition to whatever nonreligious homophobic reasons may be involved, homosexuality is seen (often unconsciously) as a purity issue. For these Christians, there's something "dirty" about it, boundaries are being crossed, things are being put together that do not belong together, and so forth. Indeed, homosexuality was a purity issue in ancient Judaism. The prohibition against it is found in the purity laws of the book of Leviticus. 
It seems to me that the shattering of purity boundaries by both Jesus and Paul should also apply to the purity code's perception of homosexuality. Homosexual behavior should therefore be evaluated by the same criteria as heterosexual behavior. It also seems to me that the passage [Galatians 3:28] in which Paul negates the other central polarities of his world also means, "In Christ, there is neither straight nor gay." Granted, Paul didn't say that, but the logic of "life in the spirit" and the ethos of compassion imply it.
When I watch General Conference now, I can't help but take issue with various "purity" interpretations. For example, from the same talk my brother sent: "Lowering the Lord’s standards to the level of a society’s inappropriate behavior is—apostasy." 

Let me be clear: I have no problem accepting that the Lord has standards that are unchanging and wise. However, our human understanding of the Lord's standards is imperfect and is always filtered through a human brain. History teaches that we've been wrong about His will before. And history doesn't hide the fact that sometimes regular Mormons have greater insight into truth than those sustained as "prophets, seers, and revelators." [See here and especially here, for example.] Our understanding of the Lord's will and His standards constantly evolve and change as we receive greater light and knowledge. And hopefully our moral conscience continues to evolve.

Elder Robbins also makes his own definition of apostasy, and my personal concern is that his statement of what constitutes "apostasy" will be used as ammunition to expel dissenters like me from the body of Christ, not to mention if it even aligns with the explanation of apostasy given recently by the First Presidency of the Church.

Last point of concern: "When others demand approval in defiance of God’s commandments, may we always remember whose disciples we are."

The problem for me isn't forgetting that I'm first and foremost a disciple of Christ/God; the problem is that "God's commandments" have always been interpreted and declared by imperfect human filters, and fallible men often misinterpret/mistake the Divine will. I remember like it was yesterday a General Conference five years ago where I surprised myself by reflexively shouting "That's not right!" as soon as President Packer shared a personal opinion about how homosexuality fit into God's plan. His talk was edited by the time it came out in the print version a few days later.

It's my opinion (and I'm entitled to my own opinion) that just as the Church now "disavows the theories advanced in the past" (such as that interracial marriage was a sin, which was declared to be "doctrine" according to some general authorities in the not too distant past), I personally believe there will come a day when the future Church disavows current teachings that being a happily married gay person was a "sin." Of all people, Mormons with a messy polygamous past probably shouldn't be painting with such a broad brush as though we've figured out the full picture clearly.

love the Brethren, but I disagree that there are no acceptable ways to act on one's homosexuality without it being inherently sinful. My love for the Brethren is not conditional based on whether I agree or disagree with them about homosexuality. I think Mormons who believe that the Church's current stance is "right" deserve for me to show them true love and compassion, regardless of the fact that I disagree with the Church's current stance. It's easier to love people who think like you. But that's why I personally think I need the Church in my life, not because I always think alike, but because I need to learn to love people who are radically different than me.

Of course, ultimately we're all more alike than we are different, whether in or out of the Church. People historically have killed each other over believing the "right" dogma or over behavior deemed "inappropriate" in God's eyes. That's a shame. I believe we mustn't let dogma get in the way of love. Compassion must always come first. Love can be the bridge between people who disagree on dogma (and is preferable than killing, shaming, or even excommunicating people over differences in belief.)

In the mean time, drawing these artificial lines in the sand causes real pain and harm. I believe it to be imperative that we be more focused on inclusiveness and compassion over righteousness and exclusivity. Our differences in belief don't need to matter when we focus on loving each other through Christ's compassionate lens. I hope we can all agree that Christ's main message is one of love and compassion rather than judging others according to our church's current standard of "sin."

Because I believe, with Richard Poll, "that everyone, including Paul and other prophets, sees eternity 'through a glass darkly' (l Cor. 13:12), prophetic infallibility, scriptural inerrancy and unquestioning obedience are not elements of my faith." And that's why I approach General Conference the way I do. If one were to just assume that what we're hearing in General Conference automatically represents the mind and will of God, one is primed to be led astray. Despite frequent assurances that Mormon prophets can't lead us astray, history proves that myth wrong. The scriptures themselves prove the myth of infallibility wrong, yet in spite of common sense, many Mormons continue to imply infallibility without even realizing it--with very striking consequences. Our shared fallibility makes embracing compassion and grace all the more important.

So yes, church really is great, except for the bad parts. We can't expect perfection when the church is made up entirely of human beings. We need to be supportive of each other, especially in our weakness. Last spring I participated in podcast interview about my current faith and some of the difficulties I face within the institutional church. (If you're interested in listening, my segment's in part one of episode 096: Hard to Stay – Harder to Leave and begins at the 29:10 minute mark.) A friend of mine who found the "A Thoughtful Faith" podcast valuable transcribed a quote of mine. I thought I'd include it here for any who may question why I remain in the LDS Church feeling the way I do:
There is something to be said of community. I want to stay in the church because it is a support community of people trying to seek Christ. Not because it’s perfect, because it’s not. And not because it has all the truth, because it doesn’t. But because it can be a good support network to people who are trying to love each other and follow Christ. As long as that’s the case, it’s great. 
But when it starts to get an unhealthy over-emphasis on "follow the prophet, follow the prophet" and all this other business like gender inequality (that frustrates me and I wish we'd change quicker), then that makes it harder to stay. Especially I have hope on the LGBT issue that the church will one day wake up and realize: "Hey, the gospel includes everybody, the gospel is for everybody. Our church though--our policies--are keeping people away. And we're going to continue to lose people and the church might just hollow out unless it adapts. But history gives me hope that it will adapt. It's just sometimes slow to adapt." [ends at 52:48
Unapologetically I embrace whatever is good and I reject whatever causes harm. Mormonism is a sausage makers religion and we each choose for ourselves what speaks to our conscience and what violates our conscience. Whether in this church, another church, or no church at all--the bottom line is all the same. The bottom line is learning to love everyone (even those radically different than ourselves) and serve and do some good. I find that in this church. It may not always be comfortable, but I'm still onboard.

Brigham Young once famously said of a great valley with a few bad parts: "This is the right place. Drive on.” That pretty much sums up how I currently feel about my membership in the institutional church. I particularly love how Sharon Eubank put it last year:
The right place doesn’t mean there is not going to be blinding salt flats and black crickets and all kinds of naysayers and killing frosts and all of those things. But it is still the right place. And I also think we ought to be probably driving on. Rolling up our sleeves and doing the thing that our doctrine allows us to do which is to say: Everybody is valuable. Everybody has unique individual gifts. The Lord’s plan allows for everybody to use their gifts. I can be respectful. I have responsibility to do it and I’m going to roll up my sleeves and go to work.

Friday, September 18, 2015

What I Wish We'd Hear In General Conference

This is the testimony that rings most true to me now:

"My agenda now is fairly simple: I want my presence on the planet to result in less pain, less inequality, less poverty, less suffering, less damage for those sharing it with me. I want the sum total of my efforts to yield more compassion, more decency, more laughter, more justice, and more goodness than before I showed up. That’s it.

In other words: I just want to do Love right.

...And let’s not kid ourselves, most people know when they’re really being loved and when they been handed a lousy imitation with the same name—especially when it comes to religious people. I’ve come to believe that if someone’s color, gender, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation keeps you from fully loving them, you’re probably doing Love wrong."

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Some thoughts on Constitution day

I'm still inspired by the three most important words that begin a masterful preamble: "We the People."

I'm likewise inspired by efforts to continually close the gap between our ideals and our often painful reality.

Suffice it to say I love our Constitution a whole lot more with the addition of the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments than as it appeared on September 17, 1787.

Similarly, I'm also inspired by much of what Mormonism has to offer. Likewise, I'm also inspired by efforts to close the gap between our ideals and our reality. Suffice it to say I love the LDS Church much better post-polygamy and post-1978, and I'll love it more in the sure future when my dream becomes a reality and the scripture that says "all are alike unto God"--both "male and female"--is finally understood to mean that all can serve God in whatever capacity best suits their talents, gifts, and abilities, regardless of sex/gender.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Musings of an Independent Mormon-Christian-Agnostic-Theist

A hodgepodge of thoughts about scripture, faith, and my conception of God (sparked by a question on my blog about accepting/rejecting scripture):

I know there are some Christians who take every word in the Bible as though it literally is God speaking. I'm not that literal. Sometimes scripture can challenge us, and sometimes we must challenge scripture.

“The word of God” has always been communicated and mediated through human filters. It naturally follows from that realization that some of the words we've canonized are not God’s words at all, but rather the words of men speaking in their weakness and cultural contexts--as well as their biases.

The Bible says all kinds of horrible things that men attribute to God. Just look at the Old Testament. How comfortable are you really with the god of the Old Testament? (Especially compared to the god of the New Testament.) On a good day the god of the Old Testament is indifferent. On a bad day he is angry and on a really bad day he is genocidal. Though you have to search it out, you can find the loving God in the OT ("my hand is outstretched still") but it's a matter of discerning for yourself which scripture is most inspired and the more accurate depiction of God.

Leviticus says divorce is an abomination, eating shrimp and shellfish is an abomination and the punishment for them is stoning. It also says homosexuality is an abomination. Yet we mortals pick and choose which scriptures we want to emphasize, accept (either literally or metaphorically) or use to beat others up with.

I can’t accept all scripture as equally inspired. Much of it rings true and resonates with my conscience and inspires me to love God and my fellow man more and better. Some of it sets off alarm bells, which helps me recognize through Spirit what is good and true and whether it represents God. I believe each individual has the responsibility to discern for themselves, through the Spirit, truth from error--even in the scriptures. And even then, that's a subjective (and often messy) process.

Honestly, most of the time it's not even that I choose to accept or reject individual scriptures; rather, it's about the lens I (or we) use to interpret scripture. Various Christian denominations have long disagreed about interpretation of scripture--even among themselves. I'm in the camp that believes the most important lens Jesus showed we must ultimately use to look at scripture is the lens of compassion (and the primary commandments to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.) If what we read insults our conscience (genocide, rape, or any other gory details that men did, supposedly in the name of God) then that is a good sign it doesn't likely reflect the compassionate God worthy of our worship.

Some people think in black and white terms that you either accept all scripture as inerrant or it cannot be trusted at all. I say that's ridiculous. There is no such thing as an inerrant or infallible standard to discern the mind and will of God. It doesn't exist. So faith--authentic faith--is filled with all kinds of uncertainty. Uncertainty makes some people really uncomfortable so they come up with all kinds of crazy apologetic arguments with which they cloth themselves to comfort themselves. As for me, I've learned to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity and lean into that vulnerability rather than run from it. When all is said and done, it actually makes me more humble and compassionate to realize we're all in the same boat trying our best to follow our God-given moral compass. We're no better than anyone else; we're all in need of the same grace.

While some Mormons might take comfort in thinking this proves the need for prophets, the thing I've come to see is that prophets are just as fallible as anyone else. (And I can name some specific examples of times when instead of clearing things up, they muddied the waters even more. Hence why I put more faith and trust in individually going directly to the Source.)

History has led me to lower my expectations of prophet-leaders, since they've arguably been wrong and misled on as many big issues as they've been right. Regardless of one's beliefs or expectations of prophets (whether very modest or completely unrealistic), one cannot escape the individual work of discerning/confirming for yourself that what you're reading/hearing actually represents the Divine will or not. One must never go on autopilot and outsource that responsibility at any time to any other individual. When all is said and done, I still like what Brent Beal wrote
I suspect that what we do with our individual autonomy will matter more to God than how well we follow directions. For me it comes down to whether or not I believe God wants us to paint by the numbers or to paint our own pictures? As parents, what do we value more from our four-year-olds? A paint-by-the-numbers portrait identical to what’s on the box, or a free-spirited 'Look, Mom, this is you and Dad in a rocket ship with a cow!' masterpiece?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Brené Brown on Faith

"Faith minus vulnerability and mystery equals extremism. If you've got all the answers, then don't call what you do 'faith'."

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Fabulous Insights From A Gay Mormon

The ever insightful Mitch Mayne gave a truly fabulous interview at Wheat and Tares. Some highlights:

*Just because my fellows are hurling angry, hostile words my way doesn’t mean I’m exempt from my Savior’s commandment to love others as myself. I don’t get to practice this commandment only when it’s convenient for me. In fact, I think the true test of my capacity to offer unconditional love to my fellows is if I can do it when it’s most inconvenient.

*Abandon the “love the sinner, hate the sin” philosophy. And not just for LGBT individuals who cross your path—with everyone. I don’t think we as humans ever do a really good job of separating actions from personalities. Meaning, we aren’t particularly successful at “hating” parts of people—invariably, we end up just not liking them based on the parts we don’t care for. More important, “love the sinner, hate the sin” puts us in the judgement seat—that’s not our job. In fact, our Savior was pretty adamant about not judging others.

A much better philosophy would be something like, “love the sinner, because you’re one too.” Then remember we do a lot better as disciples of our Savior when we focus a little more on our own salvation, and a little bit less on everyone else’s sins.

*Supporting our Mormon LGBT children doesn’t require we change or abandon our doctrine. It simply requires that we live it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

On Authentic Truth and Authentic Faith

In 2001, Todd Compton wrote the following response to negative reviews about his book "In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith." I find his insights extremely relevant and endorse his comments, excerpted below:
I believe that all truth is faith-promoting, if we're talking about authentic faith. No authentic truth damages authentic faith. Truth, even difficult truths, will only deepen and give breadth of vision to authentic faith. Only brittle, oversimplified faith will break easily when confronted with difficult truths. When we face difficult truths, we should not sensationalize them, but we should deal with them straightforwardly and honestly, using historical context and sympathetic insight to put them into perspective. Sometimes, when we have had oversimplified faith, we will need to deepen and broaden our faith to include tragedy and contradiction and human limitation, but that is not a matter of giving up our faith -- it is a matter of developing our faith. I realize that this can be a painful process at times, but it is a process that gives our faith more solidity and more breadth. The eye of faith sees greater depth, perspectives, and gradations of color; the heart of faith responds more to the tragedies of our bygone brothers and sisters, who become more real and more sympathetic to us.
I believe that the gospel includes all truth, and all truth is part of the gospel.
I believe that the gospel is afraid of no truth. All truths, both the brightness of love and the shadows of tragedy, contribute to the infinite beauty of the gospel.
The gospel includes heights and depths. It includes shining, dazzling light, and darkest shadow -- and everything in between, all shades of gray. It includes knowledge of God, but it also includes knowledge of Satan. It includes knowledge of great and good men and women, and of deeply flawed men and women. It also includes men and women who have great goodness and serious flaws at the same time -- sometimes, seemingly, on alternate days. It includes aspects of reality that are supposedly "secular" -- science, economics, music, history. (See D&C 93:53.)
... For extreme conservatives, who believe in a view of the gospel in which all church leaders always make the right decision, and for whom church leaders never disagree among themselves, these issues conflict head-on with a fragile, impractical oversimplified gospel; therefore, their only option is to ignore these issues entirely -- both on an individual level (not researching and thinking about these issues in their own minds, hearts and spirits) and on an organizational level. You preserve an absolute silence, not admitting that any of these problem-issues happened. You discourage others from thinking about and researching these issues. And when they do, even if they are trying to deal with the issues within a context of faith, you try to change the playing field by labeling the historians as the problems, rather than grappling with the problem issues themselves.
However, the gospel is more complex, and more beautiful, and possessing more depth, than extreme conservatives give it credit for. When they create an oversimplified, narrow, sentimentally idealized, shallow view of the gospel, and orient their faith toward that oversimplified view, obviously the primary historical documents, and anyone who reflects those primary documents honestly, will undermine such shallow faith. The fault is not the historian who reflects that complexity of historical reality in line with the documents in the archives and the infinite complexity of true faith. The fault is the extreme conservatives who live by, and demand that others accept, an oversimplified view of the gospel.
Granted, many church members and leaders accept such oversimplified views of the gospel, and strive to make such views the "official," untouchable version. But to the extent they do, they are doing the church and their faith a disservice, because they are propounding a version of faith that is unworkable.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Advocate For Mormon Intellectuals

Dick and Gene Poll
A month ago I mentioned how I consider Richard "Dick" Poll one of my most significant Mormon mentors, as well as my primary example of what it means to be both committed to history and to faith, particularly as a Liahona Latter-day Saint. Historian Thomas G. Alexander wrote a wonderful tribute to him after he passed, giving a glimpse into Poll's special contributions. Because it is so insightful in and of itself, I wanted to share the full text here. I would love to hear your responses/feedback in the comments below:


By Thomas G. Alexander

On 27 APRIL 1994 when Richard D. Poll passed away in his Provo home, the historical profession, the Church, and public philanthropy all lost an an active participant. As John Donne might have said, with the loss of Dick Poll the community lost a part of itself.

I first met Dick in 1965 when I joined the history faculty at Brigham Young University. During five years of working together, we developed a life-long friendship. He provided a model that helped many of us younger teachers mold our careers. A dedicated and inspiring teacher, he inaugurated the American Heritage course on television, which students affectionately called "The Dick Poll Show."

In 1970, Dick and his wife Emogene (Gene) left for Western Illinois University. His friend John Bernhard, who had served as dean of our college, accepted the position of university president, and he enticed Dick away by offering him the job of vice president for administration. In 1975, Dick declined Bernhard's invitation to follow him again, and remained as a history professor at Western Illinois until his retirement in 1983.

Needless to say, we maintained our contact--you did that with Dick and Gene because they always made you feel at home wherever you met. In 1970-71, Marilyn and I took our family to Carbondale for a sabbatical at Southern Illinois University. Dick and Gene invited us to drive north to Macomb for Thanksgiving. Our oldest children remember that experience with fondness.

After retirement, Dick and Gene returned to their Provo roots and settled down on Grandview Hill. There he continued his research and community service, and occasionally taught a history class at BYU.

Dick was utterly devoted to Gene and their three daughters--Marilyn, Nanette, and Jennifer. Last November, when the daughters and their husbands Gary Bell, Teny Allen, and Clayton Crawford honored Dick and Gene with a fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration, no one expected that within six months both Gene and Dick would be gone. Gene passed away early this year, and in a short time Dick followed. 

Born in 1918 during World War I and nurtured during the turbulent 1920s, Dick belonged to that generation of scholars whose youth had been severed by economic depression and violent war. Serving as a missionary during the late 1930s, Dick transferred from Germany to Denmark and finally to Canada as the horror of World War II began to engulf western Europe. Like others of his generation (Gene Campbell, Leonard Arrington, George Ellsworth, Everett Cooley, and Brigham Madsen), Dick served in the armed forces. Like the latter three, he returned from the war to earn a Ph.D. in history at the University of California at Berkeley. A brilliant scholar, Dick held the Thompson fellowship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

As a child of the Progressive Era and a youth of the Depression, battered by conflicts between scholarly secularism and an active faith, Dick sought to integrate his religious and intellectual lives. Throughout his career he sought to understand Mormonism as a personal experience as he probed the relationship of the Latter-day Saints to the larger American society. In his master's thesis at Texas Christian and his Ph.D. dissertation, he investigated the subject that formed the core of his scholarly output, both the thesis and the dissertation examined the nineteenth-century relationship between Mormons and other Americans. Continuing those themes, in the last years of his life, he researched long hours on the Utah War--that misguided but fortunately bloodless conflict between the Mormon people and the American nation.

Before his death, he had already begun to sketch the outlines of that study in a Dello G. Dayton Memorial Lecture at Weber State University on Thomas L. Kane and in an article in BYU Studies on the massive exodus to Provo, generally called "the move south."

It is no negative reflection on Dick to observe that he placed his role as public intellectual and teacher before his role as scholar. Dick's service to the university and the community reveals his commitment to teaching and service. At BYU, he labored as associate director and as a teacher and mentor in the honors program. The students named him honors professor of the year in 1969. As a public intellectual, he championed at BYU the somewhat unpopular causes of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors. Later, after he returned to Provo, he immersed himself in the campaign to save the Brigham Young Academy buildings. At the same time, he committed himself to the Provo Library adult literacy program.

Most important, perhaps, as part of his full career he tried to define a role for the intellectual in the Church. As Richard Hofstadter in his seminal book Anti-intellectualism in American Life pointed out, genuine intellectuals are uncomfortable with certainty. They prefer to turn answers into questions. This attribute distinguishes intellectuals from apologists who seek to reconcile and defend.

What place, Dick asked, do intellectuals who commit their lives to inquiry and questioning have in the LDS church? For him, the answer was quite clear: Intellectuals must continue to serve, to believe, and to remain faithful, while continuing to question and search. As an intellectual and a committed Church member, Dick served among other callings in the Oak Hills Second Ward bishopric, on a number of high councils, as president of the Macomb Branch, and as a teacher in the high priests group.

As a service to himself and the community of Mormon intellectuals, he defined a place in the Church for the faithful questioner in a sermon he delivered in the Palo Alto Ward in August 1967, which Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought published in the Winter 1967 issue. For those of us who remain firmly committed both to the Church and to the life of the mind, Dick's "What the Church Means to People Like Me" came as a revelation. He helped us to define ourselves.

His was no mean task. Intellectuals of every generation--Dick's included--have concluded that the soul-wrenching struggle to remain both actively committed to religious faith and to the questioning demanded of true scholars was not worth the cost. Some have taken one of two easy roads out. On the one side, many have chosen to become apologists, deciding that questioning will pay no dividends in the Church. These people decide not to research the hard questions. Committed to authority and central direction, they conform and in doing so ignore or gloss over problems.

On the other side, not a few conclude that commitment to the Church is not worth the struggle and embarrassment. For them, as for the apologists, questioning and commitment to religion becomes ultimately too hard. Certain questions prove too difficult. How do you respond to questions about the Church's previous policy on African-Americans and the priesthood or the practice of polygamy? How do you answer questions about dictation in politics or opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment? What answer do you give when friends quiz you on such matters as public dissent, feminism, or authority? Many intellectuals, uncomfortable about such problems, decide either to slip into inactivity or to sever their connection with the Church.

Clearly, Dick observed, within the Church those who question and those who do not have difficulty living with each other. This happens, he argued, not on the level of intellectual acceptance, but "at the level of personal communion, of empathy."

Nevertheless, Dick argued, although those who decline to question are uncomfortable around questioners, people who question have a firm place in the Church. He developed this argument by defining two ideal types of committed members. The first he labeled "Iron Rods." These are members for whom "each step of the journey to the tree of life was plainly defined." The second, he called "Liahonas." These are members for whom "the clarity of . . . directions varied with the circumstances of the user." For them there "was no infallible delineator of their course." Where the Iron Rod found answers, the Liahona found questions.

"To the Iron Rod a questioning attitude suggests an imperfect faith; to the Liahona an unquestioning spirit betokens a closed mind." For the Iron Rod, answers to virtually all questions appear in "Scripture, Prophetic Authority, and the Holy Spirit." The Liahona, on the other hand, accepts the concepts "that God lives, that He loves His children, that His knowledge and power are efficacious for salvation, and that He does reveal himself." Nevertheless, the Liahona believes that God's will is mediated by "the arm of flesh." Liahonas find problems in such matters as biblical descriptions of Eve's creation from Adam's rib and in the chronology that places the creation at 4,000 B.C. They are uncomfortable with the selective literalism of the Iron Rods that question the one proposition and testify to the other. As they search Church history, instead of unvarying sweetness and harmony, Liahonas find disagreement among prophets over such matters as the League of Nations, the process of creation, and politics.

Dick placed himself squarely with the Liahonas. He denied that the Liahona type was simply another name for the faithless, the apostate, or the cultural Mormon. Rather, he argued that faith in the Atonement, salvation, and exaltation were true principles as were agency, freedom, compassion, and love. Moreover, he felt a sense of commitment to the Latter-day Saints as a people, and exercised faith in a set of principles promising a better life here and in the hereafter.

Undoubtedly if questioned, Dick would say that faithless, apostate, or cultural Mormons are people who have taken the road into inactivity or out of the Church. Although they might identify themselves with the Mormon people, they have little faith in the Atonement, salvation, or revelation. Liahonas, on the other hand, are committed Latter-day Saints who have declined to reject the active life of the mind as a price of active membership.

After Dick's death, in reflecting on the Iron Rod/Liahona model, one of my colleagues, Ted Warner, reminded me of the controversy Dick's article had generated at BYU. The pages of the Daily Universe, the student newspaper, was filled with letters arguing about Dick's proposition. Some Iron Rods condemned the article as the rantings of an apostate. On the other hand, Henry Nicholes--often a glorious thorn in BYU President Ernest Wilkinson's side--argued that Iron Rods and Liahonas probably constituted only two of a large number of types of faithful members within the Church.

I'm not comfortable labeling myself as either an Iron Rod or a Liahona. Nevertheless, I find in Dick's recognition that the Church offers a place for the faithful, questioning intellectual a modicum of comfort in the otherwise uncomfortable world peopled only sparsely by Mormon intellectuals like myself.

Dick Poll would have found most unperceptive Bill Mulder's suggestion--citing his wife's quip--that the phrase "Mormon intellectual" is an oxymoron. Richard Hofstadter suggested that the hallmark of the intellectual is discomfort with certainties. Dick Poll would have heartily agreed, and he would have added that whether you call Latter-day Saints who search and question "Mormon intellectuals" or "Liahonas," they are faithful subjects in God's Kingdom. If, as I firmly believe, the celestial kingdom has room for all faithful people, Dick Poll will surely find his seat near God's right hand raising questions, for which the loving Father of us all will express his profound gratitude.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

If you could ask the First Presidency a question--any question--what would you ask?

"If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed."
-J. Reuben Clark

I'm genuinely baffled when I see fellow Latter-day Saints dismiss any effort to ask hard questions, especially when those questions are an honest attempt to find out what "the truth" is. In a church that only requires us to believe "truth", why is the default setting to view such attempts that dig deep to find out "the truth" perceived as "negativity" and a threat?

If one uses a jackhammer to try and separate fact/truth/ideal from the concrete of reality, tradition, and even current teachings assumed to be truth, I think we should be thankful for such work, not marginalize the worker because of the temporary noise.

Assuming we could ask in that spirit and receive a loving answer (as opposed to being given a stone for bread), I'm wondering what you would ask the First Presidency if you had the opportunity to ask any question you wanted?

I have several questions I'd like answered. For example:

*Why are only men ordained to the priesthood?
*When will you be reforming the excommunication process?
*Why in the world did you uphold Kate Kelly's excommunication anyway?  What was learned, if anything, when the Church botched that "sad experience"?

I'm in complete agreement with Lavina Fielding Anderson (who herself was wrongfully excommunicated), who last summer at Sunstone shared the following:
One of my personal insights is support for the order the church has established about the relationship between stewardship and revelation. I have no problem with assigning responsibility for church-wide revelation to the men who hold the office of apostle and prophet, but I can’t describe the pain I feel that those who claim the privilege of revelation seem to refuse the responsibility to seek it. Our church claims continuous revelation, yet it punishes those who implore its leaders to seek it. Some of the most horrifying statements and silences to come out of Kate [Kelly’s] excommunication is the denial that there is anything to pray about or any point on which further revelation should be sought. 
I feel such longing when I read calls from Steve Veazey (prophet and president of the Community of Christ) for the whole church to join in a discernment process. What if our leaders similarly ask its members to pray earnestly about ordaining women to priesthood? About supporting and celebrating our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who want to marry, have families, and participate in congregational life? What if our leaders really accepted Nephi’s assurance and invited us to join with him in the call: Christ "denieth none that come unto Him, black and white, bond and free, male and female...all are alike unto God.” (From Lavina's remarks at minute 10:35-12:16 of Session 324: "Life After Church Discipline.")
Hers is a profound insight and something I too long for. But great is the letdown I feel when I contrast that with the way kangaroo "courts of love" have started popping up in our church like whack-a-mole. Tonight in Sacramento, California, Rock Waterman is being charged with "conduct unbecoming a member of the church" and thus an "apostate" who'll likely be excommunicated. Last month it was the Calderwoods, who perhaps believed too little; today it's Rock Waterman, who believes too much. Joseph Smith once said: “I never hear of a man being damned for believing too much; but they are damned for unbelief.” Go figure.

***Update 6/4/15: Rock posted the following update to this blog a few hours ago:
A few hours ago I was excommunicated from the church for apostasy.
"What sins am I guilty of?"
"No, apostasy is your judgment. What sins have I committed that make up this apostasy?"
"Apostasy is the sin."
One truth has come home to me with laser clarity: there are two religions operating side by side in the LDS church today, both vying for dominance. The first is the religion founded through Joseph Smith, which emphasizes dependence on Christ. The other religion requires allegiance to Church leaders above all else. If your devotion to Jesus is stronger than your fealty to the Church hierarchy, you are a threat to their system.
It doesn't matter how forcefully you bear testimony of Christ and His gospel; the Brethren-ite religion has but one focus: replace the organic religion with the counterfeit one, all the while convincing followers nothing has changed.
You know what I think is truly "unbecoming"? Modern day witch hunts are unbecoming of the Church of Jesus Christ. Yet they're allowed to take place without much second-guessing, despite the fact we've been reminded the Church has and can make mistakes. One cannot "repent" of the truth, nor from the fact that some people with misguided loyalty/allegiance either don't want to hear the truth or see it as a threat. Our loyalty should be to the truth. Truth is truth, no matter who speaks it. Truth isn't any more "true" whether it's spoken by authorities or academics. We have to be able to discern the truth for ourselves.

Rock Waterman is a "threat" in the same way Dorothy pulling back the curtain was a threat to the Wizard of Oz. The question is do we want to see the truth and see reality as it actually is or as we wish it to be? Truth can defend itself--it's not a fragile thing. If people have faith in the truth there is nothing to fear. But if expectations of faith are placed upon a false narrative or on idols, then image must be preserved at all costs. Despite these unjust, unfair, and unChristlike witch hunts, leadership typically remains silent, unless media attention becomes great. It was a rare and welcome exception when the First Presidency issued this statement last summer:
Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.
I, for one, don't oppose the church or its leaders. In fact, I sustain them. But since sustaining them doesn't require that I always agree, I do oppose the harmful messages and teachings that sometimes come out of the church and its faithful leaders. Harmful teachings deserve to be harmed. (If you're not prepared to go down the rabbit hole, don't ask me for specific examples. There are plenty, both in the past and in the present.)

To be clear, don't believe we should ever criticize the leaders themselves. Personal attacks are certainly unbecoming a member of the church. As L. Jackson Newell wrote: "Personal attacks always diminish the dignity of individual and community life and are never appropriate in government, business, or religion. On the other hand, the respectful and constructive criticism of a leader's ideas or judgments is not only acceptable but necessary for healthy organizational life." Thus, I draw an important distinction between the person and the ideas. We should constructively criticize ideas and teachings that are harmful. I'm with Bill Reel on speaking out against harmful and damaging teachings--especially when lives are at stake or the atonement is denied. (Better to come home dead from your mission than to have committed sexual sin?! What about the atonement?!)

I dislike false doctrine as much as the next guy. I especially dislike it when it comes from authorities of my church. Thus, I support the church when it corrects its own false doctrines and false teachings, however long it takes. (Example: Race and the priesthood.) Since the church itself can eventually come around and correct its mistakes (with or without apologies) and receive grace, perhaps we ought to be willing to extend the same hope and grace to individuals to likewise come around eventually and not be so swift to judge them as apostates and excommunicate them.

In light of the First Presidency's reminder that "simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy," I posed my original question ("If you could ask the First Presidency a question--any question--what would you ask?") to fellow Latter-day Saints online. I quickly received many responses, and you'll see from their questions below that they are not afraid to think for themselves and question the status quo. It's quite a sampling:
  • "If the gospel is truly for everyone, what is the church willing to do to change the culture of Mormonism so that everyone will feel they truly have a place here regardless of color, sexual orientation, political affiliation, gender, marital status, social class, etc.. ?"
  • "Why can't we let Jesus be enough? If it's His gospel, why don't teach that more?" 
  • "Why do we need to constantly add in things to the gospel plan? Isn't the atonement good enough?" 
  • "Why are you directing people not to follow the Savior's commandment to ASK, SEEK, KNOCK? Regarding female ordination, what are you afraid of?"
  • "Why can't we be okay as a church admitting there have been lies, white washing, and deliberate half truths in the name of building a church?"
  • "If the Book of Mormon holds the fullness of the gospel, why do we have a very different church now? I am comfortable with modern revelation but we have departed so much from the church described in the Book of Mormon."
  • "What do you mean, 'you KNOW'?"
  • "What do you honestly think about polygamy? Why not just abolish section 132?"
  • "Can we have that long awaited two hour block? Pleaseandthankyou."
  • "Why do you allow yourselves to be put up on pedestals? (I personally think the deification of members of the church serving in "high callings" is a root problem to a lot of the ill's of the church. A hierarchy invalidates a lot of voices.)"
  • "Why is it that in some cases putting leaders on pedestals is actually encouraged or even demanded, and why are general authorities allowed to do it to each other? (The 14 Fundamentals and its inclusion in manuals and reiteration in conference makes top leadership complicit in fostering the idolatrous culture.)"
  • "Why have the 15 apparently decided they should not apologize for wrongs done in the past or today?"
  • "What are we to do with 2 Nephi 5, Alma 3, Abraham 1, Moses 7, and other scriptures in relation to the church's statement: 'Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse'?"
  • "When is the church going to be honest about its history? Why can't we apologize for what happened in the past? Our church clearly hasn't been Christlike in how we treat the LGBT community. And why is the church excommunicating people based on belief, not actions that are detrimental to the gospel?"
Of course, last summers clarification that simply asking questions is not apostasy wasn't necessarily a new definition of apostasy, since the following has long been in the handbook:
Yet the handbook can raise more questions than it answers: Is excommunication truly warranted in cases where one man judges another as "apostate" for believing too much or too little? How can one repent of something that was never sin to begin with?

I would whole-heartedly support the Church in making progressive changes to this definition and/or process. In light of the ninth article of faith, I wish the Church would not be so collectively resistant to change. Recently on Radio West, Greg Prince summed it up like this: "We feel very strong about how things are until they change, and then we feel very strong about how they’ve become." And later: "We feel very strongly that we do things the way we do them because we do them that way until we do them differently."

Should we not hope that Seers could see a better way forward in cases where deep and serious sin has not occurred? Is excommunication truly the best solution for these kinds of cases? Do we not see how foolish it is to continue to use excommunication as the red "ejector" button, rather than exclusively for repentance in serious moral and ethical cases? Moreover, isn't it troubling how "conduct unbecoming of church members" is subjective in the extreme, how there's no impartial jury, and that no women are allowed to be part of the council?

No amount of faith will change the stubborn fact that some members are not as lucky as others in the unfortunate reality of ecclesiastical roulette. Perhaps to create more calm and uniformity the First Presidency could require that they themselves must sign off on these kinds of cases rather than let local leaders fumble around and inflict pain on the worldwide church body.

Another question: What of those who hold up a mirror on ecclesiastical abuses in the institutional Church? If we don't like what we see, do we punish the messenger for the message? Are we okay with casting out those who speak out publicly while injustice is swept under the rug to save the reputation of the Church? Are we okay with "disciplining" those who follow the dictates of their conscience? Do we really expect all such displays of ecclesiastical "power" to be automatically and divinely ratified? If the Church is concerned about its reputation, shouldn't it allow people of conscience to become whistle-blowers in order to uncover unrighteous dominion? Does it not create an unsafe environment when the default is to squelch public dissent?

If our ultimate responsibility is to truth, do we not have the right and the responsibility to respectfully oppose teachings we've individually discerned do not represent the mind and will of God? How much faith do we actually have in J. Reuben Clark's statement: "If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed"? Does confirming the truth for one's self only apply to sincere investigators before they're baptized or all throughout their lives? Are we expected to turn a blind eye to history and believe the myth of infallibility, that authorities called of God always speak the truth?

I believe Terryl Givens spoke truth when he said the following:
We believe that it is always our responsibility to confirm through our own study and prayer and responsiveness to the spirit, whether what we’re hearing, is the mind and will of the Lord or not. I think of Orson Pratt who alone of twelve apostles refused to consent to the false doctrine of Adam-God and only many years later was vindicated for his steadfast integrity. So it may be that in the short term we do find ourselves on the margins or ostracized but I think that our devotion always has to be first and foremost to our conscience, before to any institution. (Mormon Stories Podcast episode 496--part 2: Fiona and Terryl Givens and “The Crucible of Doubt”--1 hour 33 minute mark.)
If I had a more sure hope in church leaders always doing the right thing (ie: if I ignored D&C 121:39), then perhaps I wouldn't feel compelled to speak up and voice the concerns of my conscience. But I must place loyalty to conscience over loyalty to any institution, and my conscience tells me something is seriously wrong with the way excommunications for "apostasy" are taking place. As Joseph Smith said:
I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like methodism and not like Latter day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled. (Joseph Smith, WoJS, 183-84.)
Most of us Latter-day Saints live in a state of privilege; because we ourselves don't feel trammelled we may conclude it's not really a problem for anyone else. But to "try" others because one has judged them as having "erred in doctrine" is trammeling. There are better ways to handle differences of belief than having someone in a position of "a little authority, as they suppose", press the ejector button. The scriptures teach us the "more excellent way" is to love the person and perhaps even seek to understand rather than be so quick to judge. As a matter of fact, judging them prevents us from fulfilling the greater commandment to love them. President Thomas S. Monson confirmed this:
Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun who worked among the poor in India most of her life, spoke this profound truth: "If you judge people, you have no time to love them." The Savior has admonished, "This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you." I ask: can we love one another, as the Savior has commanded, if we judge each other? And I answer—with Mother Teresa: no, we cannot.
If this is true on an individual level, would not the same hold true on an institutional level? How are we to reconcile this with our current conception of "judges in Israel"? While I don't claim to know how to answer that, a wise stake president once said: "Being a judge in Israel does not exempt me from the commandment to love one another. It binds me to it. To be a judge in Israel is to help [people] come unto Christ and repent of their sins. It has nothing to do with assigning guilt. There is many a time I know of sin and do nothing. My responsibility kicks in when an individual desires to repent."

Precisely because no one single mortal can know all the details of ones heart, wouldn't it be better to leave the judgement up to Christ? Last June in her Sunstone presentation, Lavina Fielding Anderson quoted Pope Francis, who just days before had given a homily based on the parable of the mote and the beam and had renounced those who judge others, calling them hypocrites and even comparing them to Satan. He pointed out the scriptural fact that the title of Satan is “the accuser.”

He who judges another puts himself in the role of God, the only judge--and is that not a form of blasphemy? Even with an exclusive claim to priesthood authority, if we see no difference between mortal leaders and God himself, that is idolatry. A man so certain he knows the will of God can be dangerous.
That danger should give us pause, cause us to think deeply, and to be very careful, for whichever judgment we dole out will be the judgement we too will receive. What happens to the brother who judges, as Pope Francis said, is that he ends up "a victim of his own lack of mercy." Speaking on mercy, the Pope went on to say that Jesus "never accuses" but actually does the opposite--he defends. “Jesus will judge, yes, at the end of the world, but in the meantime He intercedes and defends."

God is "the sole judge" and ultimately, said Pope Francis, men who judge “imitate the prince of this world," who waits in the background, ready to accuse. “May the Lord give us the grace to imitate Jesus, the intercessor, advocate, lawyer,” for ourselves and others. We're to imitate Him, not imitate others who judge, for “in the end, it will destroy us." After quoting the Pope, Lavina went on to say:
Meantime, those who judge, who accuse, who bully, who cut off sincere discussion, who silence honest questions, who cast the sufferers out of the community--they claim to speak in the name of God. They may be among those to whom Jesus will say: "Depart from me, I never knew you," or as the Joseph Smith Translation reads "Ye never knew me.” May we cling to Christ, be open to his grace, and have the blessing of being forgiven of our own trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Beauty Of Owning Our Own Post-Certain Religious Life

Brent Beal shared some profound insights about those of us who no longer claim to "know" truth with certainty and yet have rebuilt a life of faith. That transition from certainty to uncertainty is often accompanied from a transition of perceived orthodoxy to heterodoxy as one places higher priority on individual autonomy over simply following directions:
Many of us that have taken the heterodox fork in the road soon realize that we don’t really know anything. Our religious experiences aren’t any more valid or profound or “real” than anyone else’s. Our answers to life’s big questions are just that—they are “our” answers and however wondrous those answers may be to us (and however useful), the fact that we have answered life’s big questions in a certain way doesn’t mean that everyone else’s answers are inferior.  
We are not committed to secularism (or liberalism, or feminism, or progressivism) in the same way that orthodox Mormons are committed to “exact” obedience. We just realize that there is a lot we don’t know. If God speaks to humanity through spiritual experiences, then why does he communicate such radically different information to individuals based on their religious context? We don’t know. That’s it, really. We don’t know.  
Many of us have gotten to the point of “I don’t know,” stared into the abyss, searched our souls for some reflection of deity, and then seen the same thing: We’ve seen each other. We’ve come away from the experience with the profound realization that we–as in all of humanity—are in this together. We are truly one. Until further notice, therefore, it seems obvious that the one thing we can do—the low-hanging fruit, so to speak—is to be nice to each other. We should treat each other fairly, and with dignity and respect.  
Another common line of reasoning among those of us who don’t know much is this. If God created us with individual agency and the capacity for reason, then it makes sense that God expects us to use those capabilities...If forced into this false dichotomy [between “individual autonomy” and a “path of obedience to laws”], I suspect that what we do with our individual autonomy will matter more to God than how well we follow directions. For me it comes down to whether or not I believe God wants us to paint by the numbers or to paint our own pictures? As parents, what do we value more from our four-year-olds? A paint-by-the-numbers portrait identical to what’s on the box, or a free-spirited “Look, Mom, this is you and Dad in a rocket ship with a cow!” masterpiece? 
The path of “I don’t know” is difficult. Taking responsibility for one’s own spiritual life is difficult. Being nice to people is difficult. It’s not easy—not nearly as easy as the “exact obedience” path can be at times. But there’s a reason why most adults have abandoned paint-by-the-numbers projects.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Calderwood's Concerns Should Be The Church's Collective Concerns

"When religious people are publicly intimidated, retaliated against, forced from employment or made to suffer personal loss because they have raised their voice in the public square, donated to a cause or participated in an election, our democracy is the loser." -Elder Dallin H. Oaks

I fully agree with the above statement by Elder Oaks. Likewise, our Church is the loser when church leaders retaliate and force out church members who voice concerns in public. Despite my holy hope for holy leadership, it would be an egregious error to assume that even good, but fallible LDS leaders, cannot get things "wrong." Too often, despite the great inclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Church excludes people and sends the sad message: "You do not belong here." I believe the Church should be strong enough to allow healthy public dissent. Make no mistake, there is an unjust wrong being done to my friends Marisa Pond Calderwood and Carson Calderwood.

With permission, here are their own words:
This Thursday, May 21st, we will be tried for apostasy in the Mormon church. We have been accused of apostasy because we have publicly discussed difficult, yet true issues about the church's history and changes in doctrine, which have caused us to not believe this is God's one true church. Although we are in a spiritual and emotional place that allows us to deal with excommunication, many people are not because of fear of rejection by family, friends and community. We are choosing to go to the disciplinary council instead of quietly resigning so that we can be a voice for them and point out the problems in excommunicating people for open public discourse and disbelief.

We've seen the cognitive dissonance in ourselves and others when facts that used to be considered anti-Mormon lies are now admitted by the church to be true. It was so painful for us that we want to have these conversations to help mitigate some of the heart ache for those who are suffering like we did. Also, other members look down on those having doubts as less faithful. We want to be vocal so that those who make these judgments can see that the issues are real and legitimate without easy answers. Furthermore, it's better to love and include rather than shame and ostracize. Although individuals are having these traumatic faith crises, the real problem is that the church is going through a truth crisis.

We believe that “the truth will set [us] free” and that “the truth has nothing to fear.” This search for truth isn't fully allowed or practiced in today's church. We understand the desire to keep many of the difficult issues out of the public sphere, but the church simply cannot expect that it's going to work any longer to maintain a whitewashed narrative and keep doubters quiet in the age of information and social media. Mormons believe that before we came to earth, we rejected Satan's plan and instead chose agency. In the church today, we have to allow members to know the complete history, to talk about it openly, and ultimately to decide for themselves what they believe is true.

Although our stake president understands and admires our motives, he feels that this is not how the Brethren want it to be done. From the little they have spoken on the issue, they appear to want members to work on these issues in private and not discuss them in public with others. He believes if God wanted it differently, He would change it from the top down. We disagree because almost all of the major policies and programs in the church started at the grassroots level. Some general authorities have even called for members to create initiatives like ours instead of waiting for the Brethren to tell them what to do (Elder Clayton Christensen, 2009 Boston LDS Education Conference). 
During talks with our Stake President, who is a genuinely loving and caring man, he told us that he has not received any counsel from anyone above him on what to do with us. We've heard through mutual friends that he feels isolated and alone. He said this has been one of the most difficult things he's done as a Stake President. The general authorities are leaving Stake Presidents out to dry by not giving more correct guidelines on how to deal with members talking about difficult church subjects and doubts in public. They are also throwing truth-seeking members under the bus by not helping them deal with these issues in a different way. Finally, and most devastatingly, they are exacerbating emotional trauma by not speaking out more against the shaming of doubt and villainizing of doubters, or changing policies to actively include and accept everyone along their faith journey. Hopefully the church will see that good people who are doing the difficult work of dealing with this truth crisis and helping to alleviate the pain are worthy of praise instead of excommunication. Hopefully the general authorities will be more clear on these issues and how to deal with them in a healthy, public way that encourages love and understanding.

***Update to include the result from last night (and Carson's blog update here):

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Truth: ALL Families Deserve To Be Strengthened

The thirteenth Article of Faith states "we believe in doing good to all [mankind]." I've wondered lately how many Mormons really believe that. I can speak only for my own beliefs, but I believe in doing good to all--men, women, children, regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation. I believe Mormons should likewise believe in doing good to families--all families.

As a matter of fact, four years ago on this blog I posted "ALL Families Are Valuable" to spread the hope that the "value of the traditional family" would be replaced with "the value of all families." Yet four years later we continue to idolize the "traditional" family while causing great pain and unnecessary harm to many other families and individuals. The Church that prides itself on families still has not collectively recognized the value of all families. And it makes me sick. Latter-day Saints continue to teach fear-based philosophies of men/women mingled with scripture as "truth", but here's the real truth: ALL families deserve to be strengthened.

The truth is that families come in all shapes and sizes. Some families consist of a mom and a dad, two dads, two moms, single parents, and some families have no children at all. I believe in strengthening them all, especially because I believe it's true that "we are all likely working towards the same goals--namely an environment where those we care for, including ourselves, can grow and learn in love, happiness and safety." I believe the truth is that the Lord is most pleased when we all work to love and uplift each other and help each other to stay dedicated to our familial commitments, whatever those may look like.

As Jana Riess wrote yesterday, "every time my church does something that appears to diminish the humanity of LGBT persons, our reputation as a religion takes a hit. And when we act with greater love and less condemnation, people respond in kind." However, as she went on to say, "when we point to some families as 'counterfeit' and claim there is only one right way to love – and, gee, it happens to be ours! — we’re preaching fear, not truth. And when we ally ourselves with a group that stands accused of denying basic rights to gay people when we have recently helped to pass legislation that gives them those rights, we are sending a very mixed message."

It also sends mixed messages anytime the ridiculous and (mostly negative) phrase "love the sinner, hate the sin" is perpetuated. PLEASE let us stop using this worthless phrase. 

I think Jesus made it pretty clear we're to love, period. To condemn sin in others was a sin "in and of itself." In fact, "the only time we should openly condemn sin is when we find it within ourselves." In other words, we're to focus on loving others, not worrying about their personal life. If we make it our business to judge others business we're simply not able to love them well at all. And then where is the greater sin?

In my open letter to Elder Christofferson, I wrote: "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." The harder question for me, however, is what should I do when it's my church that's causing harm to others?

It's amazing how much harm we can cause in the name of "defending the family". To "defend" means to "resist an attack, to protect from harm or danger." It doesn't mean to go on offense. Let me be clear, I'll defend my traditional marriage if ever someone tried to strip me of that right, but so far so good--no attacks. I do see marriage equality under attack, so I'm gonna defend that too, cause marriage for all is better than marriage for some, and same-sex marriage doesn't undermine my traditional marriage in the least. My marriage is respected and I respect everyone else's freedom to marry whoever they choose. It's the golden rule. Does our church still believe in that?

The wise Roni Jo Draper once said: "I'm pretty sure the purpose of the gospel is to improve myself and love others. Not to love myself and improve others." Whenever we use religion as a means to control others, we're doing it wrong. "The purpose of religion," said the Dalai Lama, "is to control yourself, not to criticize others." Scripture provides plenty of examples of people using religion to harm others. Scripture also has plenty of examples of using religion to be a blessing to others. We should learn from the past to be more wise than those who used religion as a weapon. We ought to do more to actively be a blessing to others. I agree with Vicky Beeching: "No one should have to choose between their religious faith and their gay, lesbian, or bisexual orientation. We are all God's children, created to love and be loved."

The conversation lately about the Family Proclamation has to do with the fact that its origins had to do with political/legal reasons rather than doctrinal/revelatory reasons. But there is still much of good there that can be expanded and repurposed with an enlarged vision. One example: "We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society."

All families deserve to be strengthened. ALL families. Not just the modern Mormon monogamous ideal. Attacking gay marriage/marriage equality does nothing to strengthen families. Only the opposite, ironically. An expansion to the definition of marriage does not hurt/harm/weaken ones existing "traditional" marriage. We do that to ourselves by the way we act in our own marriages.  If we really want to prevent further disintegration of families, if we truly wish to strengthen families, the FMH community have come up with some very practical ways: "Strengthening the Family: a response from the fMh community".

Do you want to know my plan for strengthening families? Teach love and respect and inclusiveness of all, regardless of whether ones family has a mother and a father, two fathers, two mothers, only one parent, and regardless of whether they are able to raise children or not. Teach the Gospel and Faith in Jesus Christ, not the traditional Mormon culture that so many mistake for the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ would not be throwing stones at people's families. He'd be putting his arms around all good and sincere human beings, regardless of culture, gender, or orientation, and telling us to "go and do thou likewise".

In 1947 the First Presidency was completely wrong about racism and ethnocentrism in the 1900's--projecting those views onto God, while brother Lowry Nelson--a liberal--was right. History has vindicated brother Nelson. If they could be that wrong then, they could very well be wrong now in filing amicus briefs against marriage equality. I personally think God is much bigger and more loving and more inclusive than most Latter-day Saints currently give Him credit for.

If I'm wrong, I would far rather err on the side of charity and inclusiveness than to be a stumbling block in the path of my neighbor--including my LGBT neighbor. I want to be a blessing to all of God's children, including my LGBT neighbors. As the hymn says, doing good [to ALL] is a "pleasure", a "joy beyond measure, a blessing of duty and love."

I believe our true duty is to help strengthen ALL families without diminishing any particular family in the least. But even more importantly, I think the only family I need to really worry about is not my neighbor's, but the one living within the walls of my own home.