Friday, February 6, 2015

Dear Elder Christofferson

Dear Elder Christofferson, you recently stated:

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

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

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

President Hugh B. Brown once said:
I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent – if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression.
Hugh B. Brown is one of my heroes. I too admire those with "the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas" or of respectfully disagreeing with ideas that don't quite resonate with their informed moral compass. Likewise, I also have great admiration for you and your family, specifically your brother Tom and your parents, who quite soon after Tom came out determined "that nothing would be allowed to break the circle of love that binds all of us together as a family" and expressed that "while none of us is perfect as individuals, we can be perfect in our unconditional love for each other." In my mind the Christoffersons are an incandescent example of putting family first before dogma, their loving example every bit worthy of being included in the Family Acceptance Project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each verse was then followed by the following chorus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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