Thursday, October 1, 2015

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

A metaphor for the Church itself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Anonymous said...

Just a format suggestion. Your posts are so wide on my screen that they are hard to read. A narrower box for the text would be much easier to follow (from one line to the next). FWIW.

Lon said...

Great post. I needed this positive and generous orientation going to Conference weekend. Lots of good to look forward to, with no obligation to ingest anything noxious. As always, your thoughts point us towards goodness.

Johnny said...

Wow. What a comprehensive, well-written treatment of this important topic.

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