Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Guest Post at Rational Faiths: Putting Down Our Stones

While I hope that my brain and intellect would always be clear and active, it is my heart that tells me what's most important. My heart tells me this is one of the most important messages: Putting Down Our Stones

Putting Down Our Stones

"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." Putting Down Our Stones
—Thomas Spencer Monson, “Charity Never Faileth”, General Relief Society Meeting, October 2010
Love thy (gay) neighbor
I've been contemplating several Christian messages lately, looking especially for how Jesus treated the various individuals he encountered during his life. I've been moved by the treatment of a particular woman in John 8 who had been unfaithful—and everyone knew it. The religious leaders wanted to focus on the punishment for sin, but Jesus shifts the focus to the judgement being heaped upon her. Jesus lives the higher law here, choosing to love the woman instead of berating her for being an adulteress.

I think we can make an important connection between this vignette and the current treatment of our gay brothers and sisters, friends and family. In doing this, however, I do not want to be misunderstood. I want to be clear that I’m not comparing adultery and homosexuality; I am comparing two narratives of judgement. Jesus's point was that judgement of others (or in this instancecondemning sin in others) was a sin in and of itself.  The only time we should openly condemn sin is when we find it within ourselves.

While it's true this vignette portrays someone who actually was committing a sin, only he who was without sin could be the rightful judge. Most importantly, in preface to the connection I'm trying to make, just being gay is not a sin. We would do well to retire “love the sinner, hate the sin” in reference to homosexuals because, again, there is no sin in being gay. Traditional religious teachings that made this assumption have evolved, and current traditional assumptions are being challenged quite articulately here, I might add. I personally don’t think Jesus is overly concerned with our sexual orientation, but I’m convinced he definitely cares about us as individuals.

The impressive takeaway from this is Jesus's treatment of an individual to whom harsh judgement was being shown—particularly by the religious leaders. It was the religious leaders, after all, who brought the woman caught in adultery before him. Their treatment of her was most callous and demeaning, and they judged her behavior harshly. Regardless of how often the punishment was actually carried out, the Mosaic Law requires stoning for those who commit adultery (vs 5) and I almost get the sense that these men were enjoying the idea. Undoubtedly she would have been filled with fear and, because of such public shaming, humiliation. I imagine this to have been quite an intense moment…so how did Jesus respond?

His response was profound. He called for one without sin to cast the first stone (vs 7). Who would take responsibility for the judgement now? No doubt this caused them to reflect on their own sinfulness before God. The fact that the entire crowd ends up dispersing is an implicit confession of their own sins. By condemning another they would be condemning themselves.

In the end others opinions, accusations, shaming, and judgment will not matter anyway. Ultimately it's between Jesus and the individual. And in this case Jesus and the woman were left alone (vs 9). She, who is so vulnerable, comes face to face with the Vulnerable God himself. In this vulnerability there is love, and he alleviates her vulnerability and the shame she might feel by pointing out that her accusers had withdrawn—they too were not sinless (vs 10). He doesn’t even ask about the charges. Then he tells her: "Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more" (8:11). Misery...meet mercy.

While Jesus may not have condoned her behavior, he most certainly did not condemn her. He showed compassion and love. That is what matters here—and that’s what matters today. It’s clear that when all of Jesus's life experiences and teachings are taken as a whole, he focused much of his time and energy on those in society who felt the most marginalized. The Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that in order to be a good neighbor we must show mercy to even the most despised. I’ve felt for quite some time that we must model the Samaritan’s compassionate courage to our gay neighbors. Regardless of our personal comfort, he explicitly expects us to go and do likewise (Luke 10:37).

The experience with the woman taken in adultery captures as well as anything the essence of Christ's new covenant: we are supposed to be in the love business rather than the condemnation business. We can show love and compassion by being considerate of those who are hurting, mourning with those who mourn, rejoicing with those who rejoice, loving without conditions of worthiness, and being respectful of each individual—because above all they too are a child of God. We show compassion by communicating in a warm way, showing empathy, being kind, having genuine concern for the one, accepting people for who they are at their core, and doing no harm.

Jesus is not on record as ever teaching anything about homosexuality, but I like to think this experience should inform how we treat our gay brothers and sisters. Indeed, it should inform how we treat all our brothers and sisters. Put down our stones and show some compassion.
Love does no harm
What does it matter to us if the woman had been unfaithful? That's her burden to bear, her path to walk. No one is advocating for a life of sin followed by a get-out-of-jail-free card, but Jesus seems to be placing the emphasis on the importance of striving to be our best selves and extending mercy to everyone else. We each, in our own ways, are at times unfaithful to Christ and yet he loves us; he doesn't condemn us. "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17 ESV). It is not our place to say what is or isn’t sin for someone else. Jesus is mighty to save, but ultimately that’s his job.

If Jesus himself declined to condemn an actual sinner caught “in the very act” (vs 4), then we certainly have no business making a point to express disapproval of anyone else’s life, homosexual or not. I’m pretty sure the only sin for which I will be held accountable is mine personally—whatever prevents me from being “at one” with God and my neighbor. He was pretty adamant that our greatest responsibility is just to love—love God and “love thy neighbor as thyself’ (Matthew 22: 35-40; Mark 12: 28-34).
Does Jesus ever even mention to the woman what he personally thought about what she had done? He doesn’t have to—most likely she already knew what he believed. What’s most impressive is that he was more concerned with showing compassion to her, doing so both publicly and privately. Jesus then went on to teach that if we follow his example, we will not walk in darkness but have the light of life (John 8:12). Whatever that light-filled life means, it sounds like a much better way to live—for everyone involved.

It turns out that being about Jesus's and his Father's love business (and staying out of others business) is a really beautiful business to be in. Condemnation and judgement, on the other hand, are ugly—and a sin. Now, go and sin no more.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Where truth flies you follow If you are a pioneer"

This will be a long post, and yet the most heartfelt post I have written in a long time. At some point in time I chose the subtitle "cutting my own path" for my "Clean Cut" blog. When I originally started blogging I wasn't quite the Mormon "maverick" I pretend to be today.  Yeah, I drank caffeine--what a rebel, right? My wife suggested “Clean Cut with a Coke” and I liked the play on words and the alliteration. For the sake of simplicity I ended up shortening the name, while also enjoying the irony of my apparently "orthodox" appearance belying my progressively "unorthodox" views.

In reality, I despise "keeping up appearances" as much as I despise dictatorial dogmatism, rigidity of procedure and intolerance. So cutting my own path seemed to fit my personal Clean Cut philosophy as I pioneer and cut my own way through life. It especially felt applicable as I underwent my own faith transition, deconstructing my previous beliefs and then reconstructing them all over again into something more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Along with this individualism, I still greatly value the community. But I recognize that the community exists to support the individual--not the other way around.

While I've never admitted this publicly here before today, there was a time that I had such doubt (I dislike the term faith crisis) that I wondered if I could even continue in good faith as a member of the Church. It was a lonely, dark and dreary world--quite a depressing time. It seemed at times as though nobody understood me, or could help me, let alone sympathize with me. I now personally know many others like me, and as evidenced by a recent publication in BYU Magazine that should be required reading for every member of the Church, this is a growing phenomenon that's not going to go away. Seriously, if you don't read anything else, at least go and read this article here: "Keeping the Faith".

Latter-day Saints must do a much better job of loving and supporting our brothers and sisters going through their own faith transitions and times of questioning. We must emphasize what BYU professor Spencer Fluhman told a questioning student who began to believe his doubts disqualified him from the community: “You belong with us in your doubt. We want you here. You are us. We are you. We’re all in this together. We’re all at some level of spiritual understanding with imperfect faith.”

The only thing that kept me from giving up my faith entirely is partially a good dose of stubbornness on my part, but mostly due to a fantastic wife in whom I could confide anything and everything and who kept me grounded and going slow (because on my own I sometimes make rash decisions.) Whereas many give up and leave their faith behind quite quickly, my process was very long and slow--"Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief". I've benefited immensely by connecting with a community of others like me, from great and stimulating scholarship in the Mormon Studies world, and also from insights shared by Mormon thinkers who participate in the online world.

My personal faith has emerged from what seemed at one point like ashes to what now feels like a phoenix. Unless one has read Terryl and Fiona Given's first chapter in "The God Who Weeps" or Terryl Given's "Letter to a Doubter", they might not quite understand what I mean. From "Letter to a Doubter":

I know I am grateful for a propensity to doubt because it gives me the capacity to freely believe. I hope you can find your way to feel the same. The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore more deliberate and laden with more personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension.  
Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance. 
The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god waiting to see if we “get it right.” It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions which can allow us to reveal fully who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts. Like the poet’s image of a church bell that reveals its latent music only when struck, or a dragonfly that flames forth its beauty only in flight, so does the content of a human heart lie buried until action calls it forth. The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is and knowing that a thing is not. 
This is the realm where faith operates; and when faith is a freely chosen gesture, it expresses something essential about the self.

Adam Miller ("Letters to a Young Mormon") has also written some insightful words describing the kind of faith to which I now aspire:
"Either way, whether God is or isn't obvious to you, the work is the same. Practice faithfully attending to the difficult, disturbing, and resistant truths God sets knocking at your door. Faith is a willingness...to care for what is right in front of you. Faith doesn't wish these difficult things away, it invites them in, breaks bread with them, and washes their feet. Faith is what you need to persist in truth as your sweet story, regardless of its content, gets overwritten by the real."
"Faith is more like being faithful to your husband or wife then it is like believing in magic. Fidelity is the key. You may fall in love with someone because of how well they complement your story but you'll prove yourself faithful to them only when you care more for the flawed, difficult, unplotted life you end up sharing with them. Faith isn't the opposite of knowledge. Rather, like love, faith perfects knowledge by practicing fidelity to it" (Adam Miller, "Letters to a Young Mormon").
There is a cost to leaving behind the "old" faith and embracing this "new" faith. That cost, of course, is that I can never go back to where I once was; a cost I happily pay. I'm grateful now to never be stagnant, to be on an ongoing pioneering quest for truth, because "where truth flies you follow if you are a pioneer." I embrace the life of ambiguity, messiness, and uncertainty--because that's life, and life is worth it. I try to appreciate true simplicity when and where things really are simple, but I've had to unburden myself in order to truly feel free to focus on love, compassion, and grace. Not that I've arrived by any means, but I love the path. I strive to pack my handcart with the precious things; by necessity I've had to discard a lot of unnecessary baggage.

If I'm allowed to think outside the box (and if we're wise we'll discard the box altogether), the restoration is really a process of restoring all the most vital relationships that are significant to me--restoring all that was and is broken--including myself. We focus so much on being like the Good Samaritan in the parable and treating others like he treated that "certain man" on the way to Jericho. But sometimes we are the ones that are lying half dead on the side of the road, and we're the ones in need of ministering. We may go unnoticed by others because we struggle internally. These are the times when we can have hope in Christ as the One to whom we can turn everything over and allow his grace to minister to us.

This would probably be a good place to conclude, if not for my incessant desire to share some things I've learned from my personal faith transition. (Continue at your own discretion.)

I've learned that there are actually very few things that are "core" or "essential" that I must believe, and I make progress in the gospel harness at my own pace and try to make contributions to others where I can along the way.

I've learned that many people still put too much faith in the institution rather than in their own ability to access the divine.

I've learned to make a very important distinction between "the church" and "the gospel," but I've also learned from the great Eugene England "Why The Church Is As True As the Gospel."

I've learned that traditionally and historically there has actually been a large diversity of Mormon thought and a wide latitude of possible beliefs within Mormonism. Some of us are trying to reclaim this and we push back against the current of conformity to carve out a space for people who don't want to be smothered by the culture that evolved as the Church grew from its radical and liberal early days into the conservative institutional "corporation" that many mistake for a Mormon monolith.

I've learned that Joseph Smith's words are too often forgotten: “[Other denominations] have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine" (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:340.)

I've learned
to simply refuse to accept that because a more dominant strain of Mormonism picked up steam post-correlation that this somehow means that there is one right or one orthodox version of Mormonism that is now somehow the only acceptable one and that I must conform like a mindless robot. This would discount the true beauty of the plan to experience using our own moral judgement as free agents.  And it would discount a plethora of wonderful Mormon voices in the past (and present) in favor of a few voices that used the loudest bullhorn to preach their own version of doctrine just as correlation picked up steam, thus shaping much of the mainstream today.

I've learned I place great value in these words:

Elder Wirthlin:
"Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. 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." 

President Ucthdorf:
"While the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads some to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold—that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every son different from his father. Even identical twins are not identical in their personalities and spiritual identities. 
"It also contradicts the intent and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, which acknowledges and protects the moral agency—with all its far-reaching consequences—of each and every one of God’s children. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences.
"The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples... 
"In the great Composer’s symphony, you have your own particular part to play—your own notes to sing. Fail to perform them, and with certainty the symphony will go on. But if you rise up and join the chorus and allow the power of God to work through you, you will see 'the windows of heaven' open, and He will 'pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.' Rise up to your true potential as a [child] of God, and you can be a force for good in your family, your home, your community, your nation, and indeed in the world."

I've learned that I grew up within a culture of correlation with blinders on, thinking that everything was simple, and even rejoicing in my church proscribed "role"--I saw things as pretty black and white. I then awoke to find that things aren't black or white at all, but all kinds of complex and vibrant colors.

I've learned to embrace the many shades of ambiguity, whether in the Church or outside the Church, because that's life, and I choose to be faithful to it.

I've learned to adjust my paradigms and expectations.

I've learned "the science of muddling through" (Lindblom) has many applications.

When I say I no longer identify with the "culture of correlation," I mean that line of thinking that there is one right answer or one right way to be a one true Mormon. I once wrote on this blog about my experience reading an article in Dialogue that opened my eyes to the world of a "wide latitude of possible beliefs", which is a world I personally find far more compelling than the vanilla "correlated" world of Mormonism:

"Whether people realize it or not, there is a richness and diversity within Mormon thought. I've been a Mormon all my life and I feel like I'm only now beginning to scratch the surface. I like how Blake Ostler put it at the end of his article:
'Many Mormons, and probably most non-Mormons, have failed to grasp the wide latitude of possible beliefs which can be tolerated within the tradition of Mormon thought. Although many view Mormon thought as restrictive, it is in fact more inclusive than exclusive, more thought-provoking than thought-binding.

'For instance, an individual member's beliefs may range from an absolutist view to a traditionally heretical, finitist view of God and man and still remain well within the bounds of traditional Mormon expressions of faith—a latitude far beyond the tolerance of Protestantism or Catholicism. The Church's reluctance to clarify its theology on an official level has left it up to individual members to think through and work out their own understanding of and relationship to God. In short, the burden of a consistent theology and vibrant relationship with God in Mormonism is not a corporate responsibility; indeed it cannot be. Rather, it is an individual burden that reflects the unique relationship of God with each member. And each member must be willing to face the implications of his or her beliefs."

Yes, this approach can put me at odds with some of the people in the pews next to me. But I had no other choice--I had to adapt to what I was learning and experiencing. I had to decide for myself that there is enough value and enjoyment in the craziness of Mormonism--so I now embrace it, though on my own terms. I seek after that which is good and discard anything that causes harm. I also completely respect and sympathize with those who decide, through personality or experience or whatever, that it simply isn't worth the struggle anymore (because sometimes it is a struggle!) to make it work. I sympathize with that because, if I'm being honest, I'm well aware of the exit doors.

Nevertheless, I choose for myself to stay. It helps that I've come to feel at peace with the natural growth and progression from my childhood relationship with the Church to my present-day adult relationship with the Church, though naturally there are still some growing pains that come from trying to "put away childish things" without forgetting to seek the best of childlike qualities and faithfulness.

I personally love how Adam Miller has described our "faithfulness" as that of being faithful to lifenot to the stories we tell ourselves about our life or even the stories we tell ourselves about the Church, but faithful to the life God actually places before us. I still love a good story--especially history. I especially find great value, along with President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, in "Seeing beyond the Leaf."

I love making connections and living life authentically. Yes, there are times when I speak authentically and share my nuanced faith and even my deeper understanding of "the skeletons in the closet" and I'm not always understood or appreciated. But nowadays I try (though not always successfully!) to be less concerned about being understood and more concerned with seeking to understand.

Except for my family, I no longer care much about what anyone else thinks of me--that is their business, not mine. The freedom from worrying about what others think about me is most liberating. I have enough on my own plate to be concerned about as it is. I also still have plenty to learn, especially learning to be respectful of others as I seek to live and share a thoughtful faith. This respect doesn't necessarily mean I'll be passive, but patient. I still have my self-respect, and I'll speak out against wrongful accusations. I have been accused of being a "wolf in sheeps clothing" or a "faith destroyer" when the reality is actually quite the opposite.

I, for one, am pro-faith. I am against putting faith in the wrong things–the arm of the flesh, fallible men, or the institution of the church. I am for putting faith in the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, in our individual ability to search for the divine within ourselves, and the beauty and dignity of every human being. Faith in life as it unfolds right in front of us and not only the supernatural beyond--but seeking to know God by how we treat our fellow man right next to or in front of us, as we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc.

So, in the meantime, I'm comfortable sticking around and trying to make a contribution where I can, and maybe learn a thing or two about this charity business. I definitely relate, however, to the delightfully irreverent Robert Kirby: "I’m Mormon. It’s who I am. Yeah, there are things I don’t like about my church but there are things that I do. It helps that I’m comfortable being my kind of Mormon. It helps me handle people who think they have a better idea what I should do than me."

The richness and diversity of the Mormon community is something I cherish and embrace, and I personally acknowledge that Mormonism is more "thought-provoking than thought-binding." Most importantly, 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.

But so far so good, for me at least. I'm sure I frustrate some, and at times I get frustrated too--even with myself. But I don't believe the point of our experience here on earth is to avoid the hard lessons any more than it is to learn the right dogma. I think the real lesson is to learn to treat each other as Christ taught--to "love thy neighbor as thyself". I suspect I'm going to need a lifetime to really learn that. The Parable of the Good Samaritan never gets old, and for me at least, constantly presents itself in new light as life unfolds. It teaches me to show compassion and mercy to even the most marginalized in society, even if it is ourselves, and on whatever road we're traveling.

Finally, I'm indebted to Gina Colvin for the insight that in many ways the Church™ aspect of our Mormon community is managed by "managers" rather than by the "mystics". In a recent podcast she noted that "our mystics and our theologians are all among us; we walk with them everyday." So true. This is why I love to connect with a wide diversity of people, and I have found as much or more value in many of the things spoken by the mystics as I have in many or much of the things spoken by those in positions to manage the institution.

In all of this I've come to appreciate the lesson of appreciation itself. When I'm present, I find things to appreciate all around. I especially appreciate something put into words by Hugh B. Brown:

"Some say that the open-minded leave room for doubt. But I believe we should doubt some of the things we hear. Doubt has a place if it can stir in one an interest to go out and find the truth for one's self" ("An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B Brown.") I also love the quote by Dr. Henry Eyring (father of "Hal" Eyring of the current First Presidency): "In this Church you have only to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is."

One truth I do "know" is that each of us is on our own journey to find out the truth for ourselves. Each of us is a pioneer in our own life--life has never before been lived in our own body. Each of us is on our own path, and sometimes our paths cross, weave, and unfortunately even depart from one another. But I have faith in the beauty of at-one-ment.

With that I'll close in the name of Carol Lynn Pearson, with the poem I've found so meaningful and profound. It continues to inspire me on my journey:


My people were Mormon pioneers.
Is the blood still good?
They stood in awe as truth
Flew by like a dove
And dropped a feather in the West.
Where truth flies you follow
If you are a pioneer.

I have searched the skies
And now and then
Another feather has fallen.
I have packed the handcart again
Packed it with the precious things
And thrown away the rest.

I will sing by the fires at night
Out there on uncharted ground
Where I am my own captain of tens
Where I blow the bugle
Bring myself to morning prayer
Map out the miles
And never know when or where
Or if at all I will finally say,
“This is the place,”

I face the plains
On a good day for walking.
The sun rises
And the mist clears.
I will be all right:
My people were Mormon Pioneers.

––Carol Lynn Pearson

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

When the Prophet Speaks, Is the Thinking Done?

When the Prophet Speaks, Is the Thinking Done?

It is often stated by critics of the Church that the LDS people are blind followers of the prophet, and that the Church expects and cultivates such blind obedience. A quote which they choose to offer in support of this misconception is that ‘when the prophet speaks, the thinking is done.’ This statement originally appeared in the Improvement Era, in June 1945, as the Ward Teaching message for the month. This message is reproduced here, in full, as it originally appeared.

Ward Teaching



The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them;
And see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking;
And see that the church meet together often, and also see that all the members do their duty.
 (D. & C. 20:53-55.)

Ward Teachers’ Message for June, 1945

NO Latter-day Saint is compelled to sustain the General Authorities of the Church. When given the opportunity to vote on the proposition in any of the several conferences held throughout the Church, he may indicate his willingness to sustain them by raising his right hand; he may manifest his opposition in like manner; or he may ignore the opportunity entirely. There is no element of coercion or force in this or any other Church procedure.
However, there is the principle of honor involved in the member’s choice. When a person raises his hand to sustain Church leaders as “prophets, seers, and revelators,” it is the same as a promise and a covenant to follow their leadership and to abide by their counsel as the living oracles of God. Consequently, any subsequent act or word of mouth which is at variance with the will of the Lord as taught by the leaders of the Church places the sincerity of such person in serious doubt. One could scarcely have claim upon complete integrity, if he raises his hand to sustain the Authorities of the Church and then proceeds in opposition to their counsel.
Any Latter-day Saint who denounces or opposes, whether actively or otherwise, any plan or doctrine advocated by the “prophets, seers, and revelators” of the Church is cultivating the spirit of apostasy. One cannot speak evil of the Lord’s anointed and retain the Holy Spirit in his heart.
It should be remembered that Lucifer has a very cunning way of convincing unsuspecting souls that the General Authorities of the Church are as likely to be wrong as they are to be right. This sort of game is Satan’s favorite pastime, and he has practiced it on believing souls since Adam. He wins a great victory when he can get members of the Church to speak against their leaders and to “do their own thinking.” He specializes in suggesting that our leaders are in error while he plays the blinding rays of apostasy in the eyes of those whom he thus beguiles. What cunning! And to think that some of our members are deceived by this trickery.
The following words of the Prophet Joseph Smith should be memorized by every Latter-day Saint and repeated often enough to insure their never being forgotten:
I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 156-157.)
When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.
The appearance of this message caused much concern among many inside and outside of the Church. Dr. J. Raymond Cope, the leader of the First Unitarian Society in Salt Lake City, was one of those concerned. He decided to express his concerns about the impact of this message in a letter to President George Albert Smith in November of the same year. The letter was cordial, and expressed the feeling that such a message was “doing inestimable harm to many who have no other reason to question the integrity of the Church leaders… this cannot be the position of the true leaders.”
President Smith responded to Dr. Cope with a letter of his own, designed to clarify the point, at the first of December. The letter, reproduced in full below, should lay to rest any misconception about whether the Church or its leaders expect blind obedience in any degree. (Items that are underlined are underlined in the original.)
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
Office of the First Presidency
Salt Lake City, Utah
December 7, 1945
Dr. J. Raymond Cope
First Unitarian Society
13th East at 6th South Street
Salt Lake City, Utah
My dear Dr. Cope:
I have read with interest and deep concern your letter of November 16, 1945, in which you make special comment on “a short religious editorial prepared by one of your (our) leaders entitled “Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church’”. You say that you read the message with amazement, and that you have since been disturbed because of its effect upon members of the Church.
I am gratified with the spirit of friendliness that pervades your letter, and thank you for having taken the time to write to me.
The leaflet to which you refer, and from which you quote in your letter, was not “prepared” by “one of our leaders.” However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.
I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.
The Prophet Joseph Smith once said: “I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please.” This liberty he and his successors in the leadership of the Church have granted to every other member thereof.
On one occasion in answer to the question by a prominent visitor how he governed his people, the Prophet answered: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
Again, as recorded in the History of the Church (Volume 5, page 498 [499] Joseph Smith said further: “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”
I cite these few quotations, from many that might be given, merely to confirm your good and true opinion that the Church gives to every man his free agency, and admonishes him always to use the reason and good judgment with which God has blessed him.
In the advocacy of this principle leaders of the Church not only join congregations in singing but quote frequently the following:
“Know this, that every soul is free
To choose his life and what he’ll be,
For this eternal truth is given
That God will force no man to heaven.”
Again I thank you for your manifest friendliness and for your expressed willingness to cooperate in every way to establish good will and harmony among the people with whom we are jointly laboring to bring brotherhood and tolerance.
Faithfully yours,
Geo. Albert Smith [signed]
This letter can be found in the George A. Smith Papers (Manuscript no. 36, Box 63-8A), Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. More detailed information on this topic can be found in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19:1 (Spring 1986), 35-39.



Friday, May 16, 2014

Terryl Given's "Letter to a Doubter"

Letter to a Doubter

Terryl L. Givens

I understand that some doubts have arisen in your mind. I don’t know for sure what they are, but I imagine I have heard them before. Probably I have entertained some of them in my own mind. And perhaps I still harbor some of them myself. I am not going to respond to them in the ways that you may have anticipated. Oh, I will say a few things about why many doubts felt by the previously faithful and faith-filled are ill-founded and misplaced: the result of poor teaching, naïve assumptions, cultural pressures, and outright false doctrines. But my main purpose in writing this letter is not to resolve the uncertainties and perplexities in your mind. I want, rather, to endow them with the dignity and seriousness they deserve. And even to celebrate them. That may sound perverse, but I hope to show you it is not.

So, first, a few words about doubts that are predicated on misbegotten premises. I will illustrate an example of this from the life of Mormonism’s greatest intellectual, and then address five other kinds in particular. The example comes from B. H. Roberts.

From his first experience debating a Campbellite minister on the Book of Mormon in 1881, Roberts was devoted to defending the Mormon scripture. While in England as a Church mission president in 1887 and 1888, he studied in the Picton Library, collecting notes on American archeology that could serve as external evidence in support of the Book of Mormon. The three volumes of the work that resulted, New Witnesses for God, appeared in 1895, 1909, and 1911. Then, on 22 August 1921, a young member wrote a letter to Church Apostle James E. Talmage that would shake up the world of Mormon apologetics, and dramatically refocus Roberts’s own intellectual engagement with Mormonism. The brief letter sounded routine enough. “Dear Dr. Talmage,” wrote W. E. Riter, one “Mr. Couch [a friend of Riter's] of Washington, D.C., has been studying the Book of Mormon and submits the enclosed questions concerning his studies. Would you kindly answer them and send them to me.”1 Talmage forwarded the five questions to the Church’s Book of Mormon expert, B. H. Roberts, expecting a quick and routine reply. Four of the questions dealt with anachronisms that were fairly easily dismissed by anyone who understands a little about translation theory. But one had Roberts stumped. It was this question: “How [are we] to explain the immense diversity of Indian languages, if all are supposed to be relatively recent descendants of Lamanite origin?” To put the problem in simple terms, how, in the space of a mere thousand years or so, could the Hebrew of Lehi’s tribe have fragmented and morphed into every one of the hundreds of Indian languages of the Western Hemisphere, from Inuit to Iroquois to Shoshone to Patagonian? Languages just don’t mutate and multiply that quickly.

Several weeks after Talmage’s request, Roberts still had not responded. In late December, he wrote the President of the Church, explaining the delay and asking for more time: “While knowing that some parts of my [previous] treatment of Book of Mormon problems . . . had not been altogether as convincing as I would like to have seen them, I still believed that reasonable explanations could be made that would keep us in advantageous possession of the field. As I proceeded with my recent investigations, however, and more especially in the, to me, new field of language problems, I found the difficulties more serious than I had thought for; and the more I investigated the more difficult I found the formulation of an answer to Mr. Couch’s inquiries to be.”2

Roberts never found an answer to that question, and it troubled him the rest of his life. Some scholars think he lost his testimony of the truthfulness and antiquity of the Book of Mormon as a result of this and other doubts—though I don’t see that in the record. But here is the lesson we should learn from this story. Roberts’s whole dilemma was born of a faulty assumption he imbibed wholesale, never questioning, never critically analyzing it—that Lehi arrived on an empty continent, and that his descendants alone eventually overran the hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to the Straits of Magellan.

Nothing in the Book of Mormon suggests that Lehi’s colony expanded to fill the hemisphere. In fact, as John Sorenson has conclusively demonstrated, the entire history of the Book of Mormon takes place within an area of Nephite and Lamanite habitation some five hundred miles long and perhaps two hundred miles wide (or a little smaller than Idaho). And though, as late as 1981, the Book of Mormon introduction written by Bruce R. McConkie referred to Lamanites as “the principal ancestors of the American Indians,” absolutely nothing in that book of scripture gave warrant for such an extravagant claim. That is why, as of 2007, the Church changed the wording to “the Lamanites are among the ancestors” (emphasis added). No, the most likely scenario that unfolded in ancient America is that Lehi’s colony was one of dozens of migrations, by sea and by land bridge. His descendants occupied a small geographical area and intermingled and intermarried with other peoples and cultures. Roberts couldn’t figure out how Inuit and Patagonian languages derived from Hebrew because they didn’t. And there was absolutely no reason to try to make that square peg fit into that round hole. You see, even brilliant individuals and ordained Seventies can buy into careless assumptions that lead them astray. That Joseph Smith at some point entertained similar notions about Book of Mormon geography only makes it more imperative for members not to take every utterance of any leader as inspired doctrine. As Joseph himself complained, “he did not enjoy the right vouchsafed to every American citizen—that of free speech. He said that when he ventured to give his private opinion,” about various subjects, they ended up “being given out as the word of the Lord because they came from him.”3

So what are some of the assumptions we might be making that create intellectual tension and spiritual turmoil? I will mention five: the prophetic mantle, the nature of restoration, Mormon exclusivity, the efficacy of institutional religion, and the satisfactions of the gospel—including personal revelation. I can only say a few words about each but enough, I hope, to provoke you to consider if these—or kindred misplaced foundations—apply to you.

1. The Prophetic Mantle

Abraham deceived Abimelech about his relationship with Sarah. Isaac deceived Esau and stole both his birthright and his blessing (but maybe that’s okay because he is a patriarch and not a prophet, strictly speaking). Moses took glory unto himself at the waters of Meribah and lost his ticket to the promised land as a result. He was also guilty of manslaughter and covered up his crime. Jonah ignored the Lord’s call, then later whined and complained because God didn’t burn Nineveh to the ground as He had threatened. It doesn’t get a lot better in the New Testament. Paul rebuked Peter sharply for what he called cowardice and hypocrisy in his refusal to embrace the gentiles as equals. Then Paul got into a sharp argument with fellow apostle Barnabas, and they parted company. So where on earth do we get the notion that modern-day prophets are infallible specimens of virtue and perfection? Joseph said emphatically, “I don’t want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous.”4  To remove any possibility of doubts, he canonized those scriptures in which he is rebuked for his inconstancy and weakness. Most telling of all is section 124:1, in which this pervasive pattern is acknowledged and explained: “for unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth” (D&C 124:1; emphasis added). Air-brushing our prophets, past or present, is a wrenching of the scriptural record and a form of idolatry. God specifically said he called weak vessels so that we wouldn’t place our faith in their strength or power, but in God’s. Most crippling, however, are the false expectations this paradigm sets up: When Pres. Woodruff said the Lord would never suffer his servants to lead the people astray, we can only reasonably interpret that statement to mean that the prophets will not teach us any soul-destroying doctrine—not that they will never err. President Kimball himself condemned Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings as heresy; and as an apostle he referred as early as 1963 to the priesthood ban as a “possible error” for which he asked forgiveness.5 The mantle represents priesthood keys, not a level of holiness or infallibility. God would not have enjoined us to hear what prophets, seers, and revelators have to say “in all patience and faith” if their words were always sage and inspired (D&C 21:5).

2. The Nature of Restoration

Recently a Mormon scholar announced his departure from Mormonism and baptism into another faith tradition. “Mormons believe that the [Christian] church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant versions alike—completely died,” he said of his principal reason for leaving. Then he quoted another dissident as saying, “The idea that God was sort of snoozing until 1820 now seems to me absurd.” Well, guess what? That sounds absurd to Mormons as well. President of the Church John Taylor said, “There were men in those dark ages who could commune with God, and who, by the power of faith, could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world . . . There were men who could gaze upon the face of God, have the ministering of angels, and unfold the future destinies of the world. If those were dark ages I pray God to give me a little darkness.”6  Joseph didn’t believe the Christian Church died either. He was very particular about his wording when he recast his first revelation about restoration to state specifically that God was bringing the Church back out of the wilderness, where it had been nurtured of the Lord during a period when priesthood ordinances were no longer performed to bind on earth and in heaven. Precious morsels of truth had lain scattered throughout time, place, religion, and culture, and Joseph saw his mission as that of bringing it all into one coherent whole, not reintroducing the gospel ex nihilo.

3. Mormon Exclusivity

In a related way, some come to doubt Mormonism’s “monopoly on salvation,” as they call it. It grows increasingly difficult to imagine that a body of a few million, in a world of seven billion, can really be God’s only chosen people and the sole heirs of salvation. I think this represents the most tragically unfortunate misperception about Mormonism. The ironic truth is that the most generous, liberal, and universalist conception of salvation in all Christendom is Joseph Smith’s view. We would do well to note what the Lord said to Joseph in Doctrine and Covenants section 49, when he referred to “holy men” that Joseph knew nothing about and whom the Lord had reserved unto himself. Clearly, Mormons don’t have a monopoly on righteousness, truth, or God’s approbation. Here and hereafter, a multitude of non-Mormons will participate in the Church of the Firstborn.

As a mighty God, our Heavenly Father has the capacity to save us all. As a fond father, He has the desire to do so. That is why, as Joseph taught, “God hath made a provision that every spirit can be ferreted out in that world” that has not deliberately and definitively chosen to resist a grace that is stronger than the cords of death.7 The idea is certainly a generous one, and it seems suited to the weeping God of Enoch, the God who has set His heart upon us. If some inconceivable few will persist in rejecting the course of eternal progress, they are “the only ones” (D&C 76:37, 38) who will be damned, taught Joseph Smith. “All the rest” (D&C 76:39) of us will be rescued from the hell of our private torments and subsequent alienation from God.

4. Inefficacy of Institutional Religion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote perhaps his greatest sermon on the fallacy of cheap grace. I think the plague of our day is the fallacy of cheap spirituality. I find among the college freshmen I teach a near-universal disdain for “organized religion” and at the same time an energetic affirmation of personal spirituality.

The new sensibility began innocently enough with the lyrical expression of William Blake, who suggested that God might be better found in the solitary contemplation of nature than in the crowded pews of churches. He urged readers “to see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour”8 It took a Marxist critic, Terry Eagleton, to point out that the Gospel of Matthew teaches us that “Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water. The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick. When you act in this way, you are sharing in the love which built the stars.”9 Holiness is found in how we treat others, not in how we contemplate the cosmos. As our experiences in marriages, families, and friendship teach us, it takes relationships to provide the friction that wears down our rough edges and sanctifies us. Then, and only then, those relationships become the environment in which those perfected virtues are best enjoyed. We need those virtues not just here, but eternally, because “the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy” (D&C 130:2).

In this light, the project of perfection, or purification and sanctification, is not a scheme for personal advancement, but a process of better filling—and rejoicing in—our role in what Paul called the body of Christ, and what others have referred to as the New Jerusalem, the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn, or, as in the prophecy of Enoch, Zion. There are no Zion individuals. There is only a Zion community.

5. Satisfactions of the Gospel/Personal Revelation

Brigham Young said, “To profess to be a Saint, and not enjoy the spirit of it, tries every fiber of the heart, and is one of the most painful experiences that man can suffer.”10 We expect the gospel to make us happy. We are taught that God answers prayers, that all blessings can be anticipated as a direct and predictable result of a corresponding commandment. I love that quote, because I think Young was being truly empathetic. He realized that then, as now, thousands of Saints were paying the high price of discipleship and asking, “Where is the joy?” And he knew the question was born in agony and bewilderment.

I have no glib solace to offer. I will not bore you or insult your spiritual maturity with injunctions to pray harder, to fast more, to read your scriptures. I know you have been traveling that route across a parched desert. But do let me repeat here three simple ideas: be patient, remember, and take solace in the fellowship of the desolate. In Lehi’s vision, he recorded, he “traveled for the space of many hours in darkness” (1 Nephi 8:8).

Patience does not mean to wait apathetically and dejectedly, but to anticipate actively on the basis of what we know; and what we know, we must remember. I believe remembering can be the highest form of devotion. To remember is to rescue the sacred from the vacuum of oblivion. To remember Christ’s sacrifice every Sunday at the sacrament table is to say no to the ravages of time, to refuse to allow his supernal sacrifice to be just another datum in the catalogue of what is past. To remember past blessings is to give continuing recognition of the gift and to reconfirm the relationship to the Giver as one that persists in the here and now. Few—very few—are entirely bereft of at least one solace-giving memory: a childhood prayer answered, a testimony borne long ago, a fleeting moment of perfect peace. And for those few who despairingly insist they have never heard so much as a whisper, then know this: We don’t need to look for a burning bush when all we need is to be still and remember that we have known the goodness of love, the rightness of virtue, the nobility of kindness and faithfulness. And as we remember, we can ask if we perceive in such beauties merely the random effects of Darwinian products, or the handwriting of God on our hearts.

At the same time, remembering rather than experiencing moves us toward greater independence and insulates us from the vicissitudes of the moment. Brigham said God’s intention was to make us as independent in our sphere as he is in his.11 That is why the heavens close from time to time, to give us room for self-direction. That is why the Saints rejoiced in a Pentecostal day in Kirtland’s temple but were met with silence in Nauvoo—silence, and their memories of Kirtland. One can see the Lord gently tutoring us to replace immediacy with memory when he says to Oliver, “If you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:22–23). Citing C. S. Lewis, Rachael Givens writes, “God allows spiritual peaks to subside into (often extensive) troughs in order [to have] ‘servants who can finally become Sons,’ ‘stand[ing] up on [their] own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish . . . growing into the sort of creature He wants [them] to be.’ ”12

Finally, find solace in what I have called the fellowship of the desolate—with Mother Teresa, who said, “I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. . . . Heaven from every side is closed.”13

Or with the magnificent Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who poured out his soul in this achingly beautiful lament:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.14

Or with my favorite poet, George Herbert, who expressed frustration with his own ministry, barren as it felt of joyful fruit, and described his—almost—defection from life lived in silent patience:

I struck the board, and cried, No more.
I will abroad.
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it: there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
All wasted?

Away; take heed:
I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s-head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his [own] need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child:
And I replied, My Lord.15

Finally, listen to Fyodor Dostoevsky who, like Herbert, found only the slim anchor of one memory ensconced in an overwhelming silence to hold onto—but hold on he did:

I will tell you that I am a child of this century, a child of disbelief and doubt. I am that today and will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now, which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet, God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm; at those instants I love and feel loved by others, and it is at those instances that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred for me. This Credo is very simple, here it is: to believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly and more powerful than Christ.16


Maybe none of these issues apply to you. Maybe you have a whole different set of doubts. Or maybe none of my words are persuasive in allaying those doubts. In that case, I turn to my last but most important point. Be grateful for your doubts.

William Wordsworth was. Mormons know the early stanzas from his “Intimations” ode, the “trailing clouds of glory” lines. But more magnificent, in my opinion, are the later stanzas, where he tells us what he is most grateful for, where he finds the source of his joy. After struggling with the indelible sadness of adulthood, trying in vain to recapture the innocence and joy of childhood delight and spontaneity, he realizes it is the tension, the irresolution, the ambiguity and perplexity of his predicament that is the spur to his growth. That is why, as he tells us, in the final analysis he appreciates the very things that plague the questing mind. He is grateful not for the blithe certainties and freedom of a past childhood. He is thankful not for what we would expect him to appreciate:

Not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest—
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast: —
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise;
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised.…
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day.17

You see, it was in the midst of his perplexity, of his obstinate questions, uncertainties, misgivings, and shadowy recollections that almost but don’t quite pierce the veil, that he found the prompt, the agitation, the catalyst that spurred him from complacency to insight, from generic pleasures to revelatory illumination, from being a thing acted upon to being an actor in the quest for his spiritual identity.

I know I am grateful for a propensity to doubt because it gives me the capacity to freely believe. I hope you can find your way to feel the same. The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore more deliberate and laden with more personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.

The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god waiting to see if we “get it right.” It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions which can allow us to reveal fully who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts. Like the poet’s image of a church bell that reveals its latent music only when struck, or a dragonfly that flames forth its beauty only in flight, so does the content of a human heart lie buried until action calls it forth. The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is and knowing that a thing is not.

This is the realm where faith operates; and when faith is a freely chosen gesture, it expresses something essential about the self.

Modern revelation, speaking of spiritual gifts, notes that while to some it is given to know the core truth of Christ and His mission, to others is given the means to persevere in the absence of certainty. The New Testament makes the point that those mortals who operate in the grey area between conviction and incredulity are in a position to choose most meaningfully, and with most meaningful consequences.

Peter’s tentative steps across the water capture the rhythm familiar to most seekers. He walks in faith, he stumbles, he sinks, but he is embraced by the Christ before the waves swallow him. Many of us will live out our lives in doubt, like the unnamed father in the Gospel of Mark. Coming to Jesus, distraught over the pain of his afflicted son, he said simply, “I believe, help thou mine unbelief(Mark 9:24). Though he walked through mists of doubt, caught between belief and unbelief, he made a choice, and the consequence was the healing of his child.

The highest of all is not to understand the highest but to act upon it,” wrote Kierkegaard.18 Miracles do not depend on flawless faith. They come to those who question as well as to those who know. There is profit to be found, and advantage to be gained, even—perhaps especially—in the absence of certainty.

From a fireside presentation to the Single Adult Stake, Palo Alto, CA, October 14, 2012. Revised October 22, 2012/November 14, 2012.
  1. W. E. Riter to James E. Talmage, 22 August 1921, in B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1992), 35.
  2. B. H. Roberts to Heber J. Grant et al., 29 December 1921, in Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 46.
  3. Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, They Knew the Prophet: Personal Accounts from over 100 People Who Knew Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974), 140.
  4. Manuscript History of the Church D-1, pp. 1555–57.
  5. Spencer W. Kimball, Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball,  (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995), 448–49.
  6. John Taylor, in Brigham Young et al., Journal of Discourses, 26 vols., reported by G. D. Watt et al. (Liverpool: F. D. and S. W. Richards, et al., 1851–86; repr., Salt Lake City: n.p., 1974), 16:197–98.
  7. Joseph Smith, Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin, 1991), 360.
  8. William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, at http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/blake/to_see_world.html.
  9. Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 95.
  10. Journal of Discourses, 12:168.
  11. See Journal of Discourses, 3:252, 13:33.
  12. See C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1941; reprint, New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 39–40, as cited in Rachael Givens, “Mormonism and the Dark Night of the Soul,” at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peculiarpeople/2012/09/mormonisms-dark-night-of-the-soul/.
  13. Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light (New York: Random House Digital, 2009), 202.
  14. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Selected Poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins, ed. Bob Blaisdell  (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2011), 59–60.
  15. George Herbert, The Temple, 2nd ed. (1633; repr., London: Pickering, 1838), 159, at http://books.google.com/books?id=vv-PaLfn8wIC. Spelling has been modernized.
  16. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 160.
  17. William Wordsworth, Poems of Wordsworth, ed. Matthew Arnold (London: MacMillan, 1882), 205–6. Emphasis added.
  18. Søren Kierkegaard, The Soul of Kierkegaard: Selections from His Journals, ed. Alexander Dru (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003), 213.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Doctrine of Separate But Equal

In 1896 the all-white-male Supreme Court of the United States (Plessy v Ferguson) decided that as long as facilities and opportunities were equal, racial segregation was acceptable. Despite this early insistence, history shows that both equal facilities, and especially opportunities, were not a reality for an entire group of citizens born with a different skin color. Too often there is a disconnect between our ideals and our reality.

In 1954 the Supreme Court overturned the doctrine of separate but equal (Brown v Board of Education). Thurgood Marshall successfully argued that racial separation deprived black children "of equal status in the school community...destroying their self-respect." The burden of being separated did actual damage and shouted "inferior" to black children. Any system that separated children according to race was by its nature unequal.

After long delays (including rearguing the case after the previous Chief Justice had died), new Chief Justice Earl Warren (who was from California and had not been forced to confront segregation as it existed in the South), took some time to do some sightseeing, touring Civil War battlefields in Virginia. After spending the night in a country hotel, he awoke in the morning and was shocked to find that his black chauffeur had spent the night in the car. Chief Justice Warren was forced to confront the uncomfortable reality of segregation face to face. Hotels in Virginia traditionally did not cater to black visitors. "I was embarrassed, I was ashamed," Warren wrote years later. He became an activist, of sorts, dedicated to making sure that the ruling that came in the spring of 1954 was unanimous: "We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Now all comparisons have their flaws. Nevertheless, I myself have done a little sightseeing. I've been confronted with the uncomfortable and embarrassing reality that many in our church (perhaps because they "sleep" in luxury and privilege while others are living a marginalized reality) refuse to recognize what an increasing number of LDS feminists see: the doctrine of separate but equal in terms of gender equality in the LDS Church is problematic. To deny this is to cast aside the concerns and the pain that so many of our best women have felt. These faithful feminists have been marginalized--their feelings minimized--in favor of maintaining great public feelings of the Church and its brand.  My heart aches that so many members no longer feel they belong to our collective body of Christ.

I believe there is a place for all of us here, including those who feel perfectly content with the status quo. But while many believe in the divinity of the Church, not all believe that an all-male-priesthood-leadership-patriarchy is the ideal. Some, recognizing the Church is a human organization, suggest that it's run much more like a corporation than many care to admit. Others get defensive at just the suggestion that our current reality doesn't necessarily reflect God's ideal. I've heard some say: "If God is in charge, surly he would have fixed it if there was truly a problem. God wouldn't allow sexism to exist within his church". (Brother Jake explains that Mormons are not sexist.)

Because of my understanding of history and the way God has dealt with humankind in the past, including within our own faith, I no longer believe in a God who micromanages us. God doesn't rob us of the opportunity to gain nitty-gritty experience and to learn sometimes-painful lessons for ourselves. He lets us struggle--sometimes a long, LONG time--to ultimately learn his will and correct our own wrongs.

Sometimes it seems that the ultimate truth hides in plain sight: "He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God." (2 Nephi 26:33).

If we truly believe this--that all are alike unto God--then we all ought to be more committed to promoting equality (including gender equality) better than we have traditionally done. (See here for a great example of teaching Mormon women, patriarchy, and equality in a higher education setting by a BYU-Idaho professor.) We should especially stop insisting that things are the way they are because God wants them to be that way.

The actions of Ordain Women within the past year certainly brought this back into the collective conversation, for better or for worse. I've already written about some of the parallels I personally see in history, so I'm not going to belabor the point here. But there's an interesting scene in a film about the Civil Rights movement entitled "Freedom Song" that I can't seem to get out of my mind. After some disturbances in the community involving race relations, one particular white women asks her black housemaid if she had heard about the disturbances (which she categorized as "race riots".) She went on to say: "Made me so upset I couldn't sleep...God made us to be separate. He must have a reason. Finally I realized it must be because he wants us to know our place and to stay in it. Otherwise there would be disorder, and God doesn't want disorder."

I personally believe there is more in store for a woman's place in this church than is reflected by the current order, or the status quo. I still believe, stronger than ever, that women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It doesn't seem right to me that half of our "fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God" are not inherently part of the decision making bodies of our church unless invited there by benevolent men--and this based solely on the fact that they happened to have been born female.

No, I believe, with many others, that "all are alike unto God" (2 Ne. 26:33).