Monday, May 23, 2016

The Problem of Pain

The following post was published on The Transfigurist on 4/26/2016


https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_laughing_face_%28left%29_and_a_face_expressing_acute_pain_%28rig_Wellcome_V0009322.jpg

The problem of pain is not in its logic. It only defeats false Gods, or Gods unconstrained by the realities of the nature we live daily.

The problem of pain is in the gut wrenching sadness of watching a parent lose a child and thinking of your own precious children. Of watching a man or woman lose the love of their life. Of watching families uprooted, homeless and cast upon the whims of unwilling strangers, thinking of the time you were jobless, homeless, and on the road with two kids, whatever stuff you could fit in a sedan, and only safe because of the luck of belonging to a family able to help. Of visiting your neighbor and smiling and talking like good neighbors do, but noticing empty cupboards in their tiny, broken, rented home, knowing your kids--who may be limited in where they go to college by what scholarships they can get--will be going to college (or its future counterpart), but who knows where these childhood friends will go from this tiny town with one in six adults unemployed. Of walking by the friendly old man who is always out giving candy to kids on Halloween, with a smile and happy words, and seeing his perpetual rummage sale--and realizing how poor many of your neighbors must be for his to be even a marginal business--selling stuff you wouldn't even donate to a second hand store or give to a friend.

That is the problem of pain. When I don't shut it down or blame it on somebody so I can pretend it's fair, or at least deserved, I see it for what it is. It is evil. It hurts. It hurts even when it doesn't hurt us. We hurt and we rage at injustice. At an unjust universe. At an unjust God. Yeah, even the Gods that might be real. They aren't stopping the pain. They aren't fixing the problems. Even if they might fix them later--balancing out all that wrong on some imagined scale of eternal justice--that doesn't do squat for here and now. What's unrighteous about that anger? Anger at big, powerful people, comfortable in their positions, with enough resources to fix things if they cared enough? You want to know how I'll react if you tell me that anger's unrighteous? Probably you don't, but I probably wouldn't react much. Everybody says dumb things. It's a pain, but usually not much. I've survived worse.

But when my heart hurts, when I see happy kids with deprived futures, when I see kind, uncomplaining people with no hope or purpose but to get by until they die, when I feel irreparable loss--big or small--sometimes I either cry or scream, or both. Maybe not on the outside, but maybe so. And it doesn't matter that our Heavenly Parents have an answer. Especially not since that answer seems to be that the universe is unjust and uncaring--even the one they live in. It's just pain. There is no fix. There is no right answer.

One thing that makes it better for me? We cry together. We scream and rage against that pain together, and we say NO! NO PAIN HERE! NOT IF I HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY ABOUT IT! And sometimes we do have a say, so we do something. But sometimes we don't, so we still scream. We still cry. And we love each other, because that's all we can do. We create that out of the uncaring universe. Maybe we have to live forever with the problem of pain. Whatever explanation we give, it's still pain. But every loving being we make in this universe--as parents here, or as Parents hereafter--makes the universe care that much more.

Image Credit: Wellcome Trust

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How I wish my students would read science: a case study on Gender Ideology

I have wondered about the issue of Gender Dysphoria, and when several of my friends and acquaintances posted links to a position statement by the American College of Pediatricians, I was interested. Even as a public LGBTQ ally, I continue to be sceptical of positions that fail to recognize the predominant biological sex binary. I was encouraged as I began reading the ACP position that it distinguished between the clinical definitions of sex and gender, since we often don't understand this distinction because of less specific definitions of the words in common speech. Here I'm going to model stream of consciousness how I read a scientific argument like that made by the ACP, and the kind of thinking I try to model for my Biochemistry students as we work through scientific arguments. We usually don't pick such ideologically controversial topics, but there is still plenty of ambiguity in Biochemistry.

Initial Impressions

The American College of Pediatricians webpage looked like a valid organization of health care professionals. (I believe it is, even with what I later discovered about the group).

The first point highlighted the predominant sexual binary and its import for continuation of the species. Both facts that concord with my prejudices and understanding. While we don't need every individual to reproduce for survival, we need most individuals to reproduce. But the ACP paper failed to even acknowledge that sex is determined by many more genetic factors than those found on the X and Y chromosome, and they identified all variation from the binary as a disorder. This very black and white oversimplification made me uncomfortable.

At point 2 they recognize the sociological and psychological contributions to gender. Gender is significantly defined by culture and psychology (some have argued completely, but I suspect this doesn't reflect a typically more ambiguous reality). That gender is significantly culturally defined also agreed with my understanding and biases. But once again their statement is black and white, not recognizing any genetic or epigenetic component to gender identity. This increased my discomfort.

The first sentences on point 3 made me uncomfortable--implying a very strong separation between mind and body, psychological and physical problems, that I'm not sure is justified scientifically. In the remainder of the point they identify gender dysphoria as a recognized psychological problem by citing the DSM-V, a diagnostic manual which tends to contain the broad consensus standards by which American psychologists work. This inclined me to believe that gender dysphoria is a problem, and increased their credibility in my emotions.

With point 4 they state something that seems self-evident to me, and a reason I think puberty delaying drugs should be approached with _extreme_ caution. They said that puberty is not a disorder, and delaying it is a disorder. While I still was uncomfortable about the lack of nuance (delaying puberty is sometimes a smaller problem than the alternative), it further inclined me to believe them.

At point 5 I thought, if only 98% of gender dysphoric boys and 88% of gender dysphoric girls resolve their gender dysphoria after puberty, we really shouldn't give them puberty delaying drugs that come with real health risks (points 6-8). But the words "as many as" gave me pause once again. Why are they saying "as many as"? If there is a number, you should look into it. If there isn't a number, you should be dubious of the claims.

Then points 6-8 seemed to be continuing a rhetorical trend that made me uncomfortable. 6 implies that all children who delay puberty will choose to undergo sex changes. It took me a minute to think about it, but while delaying puberty is partly for the purpose of making later sex change less difficult, it is explicitly for the child to have more time to mature and make a very difficult, life-altering decision. Yes, the child is still too young to make a fully mature decision, but at least the child is an older teen rather than a young teen or preteen. And it isn't the puberty delaying drugs with the health risks, as at least one of my friends understood after reading the ACP statement. It's the cross-sex drugs. If this is a scientific statement, they should be justifying these claims with numbers, or make it clear that they are speculating and give justifications for their extrapolations. What is their evidence that children who delay puberty invariably choose sex-change and its associated risks instead of resolving their gender dysphoria and undergoing late, but otherwise normal, puberty? They don't provide links for this, so it looks a lot like a slippery slope argument, and further reason for concern.

Point 7 then compares suicide rates among cross-sex adults over an unspecified period of time with what will happen to children who undergo the same procedure much earlier and after delaying puberty. It is reason for concern, but it is apples and pears (related, but not the same). They do provide a reference to the peer reviewed article, which is good, but they don't even provide a link. And the journal it is published in is in the Public Library of Science. That means it is free online. Why, in such an important statement, would you not take the minute required to provide your readers with a link to the original research? This made me look at the other references more closely. While the references are sound, none of them provide clickable links, despite many of them being freely available online. This is disturbing in an organization that claims professionalism.

But I had only done some of this analysis by the first read through. I had noticed numerous red flags, but all the things that accorded with some of my prejudices, and the proper science-speak on other points, made me inclined to believe the the ACP conclusion in point 8 that using drugs to delay puberty is probably harmful. I wasn't comfortable with calling it abuse--especially since I was aware of a study that found that children who delayed puberty were just as happy in their 20s as their peers who did not, so I had memories that gave pause to claims of abuse. But I though, we probably shouldn't be delaying puberty for most cases of gender dysphoria if it only helps such a small percentage of the already small percentage of children with gender dysphoria.

Looking Further

I still had to relieve my concerns with the red flags. I made myself look further. The comments of another interested party on Facebook helped, but it turns out it isn't hard to discover something about the ACP by a simple Wikipedia search:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_College_of_Pediatricians

This group consists of 60-200 members--except that's an estimate because they don't publish how many members they have, just the credentials of a few. That's compared to the American Association of Pediatrics 64,000 members. So it comprises at most 0.1-0.3% of American pediatricians. So this statement is officially supported by only a very small percentage of pediatricians.

I read the follow up clarifications on points 3 and 5. Instead of 2 and 12% of male and female children that don't resolve gender dysphoria, it may be 30 and 50% that don't resolve after puberty. Most likely it's somewhere in between, maybe 1 in 6 males and 1 in 4 females. Where are the recommendations of the ACP for those children? Are those children simply broken and not valuable? The ACP position is clearly that they are broken.

I then went to the "about" page and read it. The ACP makes it clear that they are starting from an ideological position: "We expect societal forces to support the two-parent, father-mother family unit and provide for children role models of ethical character and responsible behavior."

Scientific Merit

At this point, I would hope it is clear to any of my students that the ACP position statement is of dubious scientific quality. Before concluding that my beliefs are scientifically justified, I should be going to other sources. The Wikipedia article suggested a likely one, so I looked it up. Here it is, Just the Facts about Sexual Orientation and Youth from the American Psychological Association. Just having skimmed a few parts, it's a much more useful read--broadly informative, more nuanced, and less dogmatic in its claims. Clearly more focused on caring for the child rather than asserting an absolute societal norm.

So while I don't think I disagree with any of the facts presented in the ACP position paper, and I agree with the recognition of gender dysphoria as a problem, I am back to believing that the best way to address the problem is to give parents and health care providers tools and choices. They are working directly with the children, so give them best tools available and the right to do their best to help their children as they see fit. Do you imagine the parents care more about a sexual agenda than about their own children? Maybe a few, but I doubt many. I'm sure they will sometimes make mistakes, and that cultural norms sometimes hurt children, but we've been ideologically hurting 2-30% and 12-50% of these children for generations without any possible help for them. I'm glad that doctors are trying to help this small population, and hopeful that over time they will figure out the best ways to do it based on empirical observation more than on ideology.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Interacting with the Disaffected from Mormonism

I continue to be a believer in Mormonism. I don't think many people who know me question this, even if as practicing Latter-day Saints they think I could be more committed to my ward or the LDS church, even if they question my understanding of doctrine or faith, or what it means to follow God, or even if they know my sins and failings. Doubters and unbelievers don't hesitate to identify me as believing, if they think about it. Yet I have spent some significant time and energy over a period of years interacting with and learning from many who question and criticize Mormonism at different levels, some who leave or have left, and a smaller fraction of those who have become critics of Mormonism or religion generally. A friend asked me for advice on interacting with friends who are also critics of Mormonism. Here's my advice:

Do your best to muddle through as lovingly and sanely as possible.

But now for an answer that is really a personal reflection. What do I try to do? What do I succeed in doing? I have several answers. Here is a list as they come to mind:
  • I spent time getting to know what critics were talking about. I read critical and apologetic material, and I read scholarly material. I read and enjoyed the softer scholarship of Hugh Nibley (I like his peer reviewed stuff on the ancient world really well, too), as well as the alternative framings of Mormonism provided by writers like Eugene England and some scientist saints in stories and testimonies like those posted in Mormon Scholars Testify, and before that in the book Expressions of Faith (My dad's testimony is included. His and Paul Cox's are two of my favorites.) 
  • I also read some "New Mormon History" somewhat randomly. I didn't know people who could recommend the best stuff. Now you can find great recommendations like this top 10 list discussed in Rational Faiths podcasts.
  • I listened to lots of podcasts to learn more about LDS history and doctrine. In the process I learned a lot about LDS culture, and the intimate details of the stresses people feel as members of the LDS church. It's worth listening to people's stories. Perhaps worth more than listening to the interviews with experts, but I loved many of those, too.
  • I started engaging with the disaffected. I like this term, because I think it describes so many of us so well. We have lost affection for the LDS church, perhaps Mormonism generally, and maybe even religion and God. The degree varies. I still feel a lot of affection for all of these things, but not as much love and trust of leaders and institutional structures. But I am much more than acquaintances with people along a multidimensional spectrum of disaffection.
I suppose now I'm getting to how I engaged and how I engage with the disaffected.
  • I don't engage much, now. I engaged most when I was trying to figure out what I thought on dozens of issues. Now it's mostly just with loved ones.
  • I try to be willing to validate emotions. I'm convinced emotions are real and matter. When a person feels betrayed or angry, that is really how they feel. There are real reasons for it or causes of it. Their perception is a valid reality whether I share that reality or not. I don't get to say people are wrong for experiencing their own experiences.
  • I try to be informed and validate factual observations that are unflattering to Mormonism. If you are my close friend, I might even tell you I think something you think is evil is evil.
  • I try to assume the best of every party--present or not, public figure or private individual. I want people to think I'm thoughtful, loving, principled, etc. So yes, I spin news and arguments to make everyone look as good as I can.
  • I share and write criticism when I feel like I need to. But when it's criticism, I sit on it for a while to see if I really feel like saying it and if I can say it in more understanding ways.
  • I share and write apologetics when I feel like it. I hope I'm rarely insensitive, but I like explaining ideas I think are valuable and comparing them with alternative ideas.
  • Mostly with all of this I just tell my story. Sometimes my story is an attempted logical argument. Sometimes it's an emotional plea. But I try to show real respect that others can have different, morally justified, stories.
  • When I disagree and feel like it needs to be said--maybe because I imagine there is an impressionable audience--I try to disagree pleasantly and not worry about winning a debate. I try to bow out considerately and let others have the last say (except to maybe show that I heard and understand what they said)--most of the time. I'm convinced that's as effective as debating for influencing people in most settings.
  • I post my thoughts mostly on blogs where people have to actually go a little out of the way to read my full thoughts. I love it when people listen to me or read my words, but they need space for their words, too. They also need space to not care about me. Especially since, you know, I'm a white, heterosexual, educated, lifetime Mormon, American male. That doesn't mean my voice doesn't count, but my life is pretty well represented in the Bloggernacle. I need to be willing to step out of the spotlight, however much I love an audience.
I love several disaffected Mormons. Not just like. So I'm sensitive to their feelings. I love many whole-life committed LDSs. So I'm sensitive to their feelings. I don't always act sensitively, but I feel remorse when I realize a slight. I muddle on and keep trying to love both groups. Sometimes it's easier for me to love one more than the other, but mostly I'm just learning how to be comfortable perpetually in between.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hard Questioning

I wrote most of this a couple of years ago when I was unsettled by this topic. I still think most of these thoughts are accurate. I'm less invested in the outcomes, since I no longer see myself as having a future of potential influence within the standard structures of the LDS church. Partly because I feel these things less, I'm finally ready to share them and hope that others will recognize these same issues and enact changes that will make Mormonism even better. I plan to keep working to improve the things in the world that God seems to be leading me towards, and I'll keep doing what I can to build Zion.

Questioning and Getting Answers

What is the experience of questioning and getting answers in the LDS church? I really thought about this a lot a couple of years ago after listening to the interview with Hans and Birgitta Mattson on Mormon Stories. How does one learn more than has been taught, or unlearn a mistaken teaching? Few of us doubt the existence of mistakes in past and current LDS teachings, but what is the experience of learning more--or differently--than the current, dominant teachings?

Hans and Birgitta Mattson's experiences and my thoughts

From the experience of Hans Mattson, it is clear that general leadership is extremely busy with administrative functions. They have little time or energy for theological and doctrinal thought that is not related to policy or immediate action. They have to steal that time from their busy days just like the rest of us, and maybe more than most of us. Asking difficult historical or doctrinal questions of general authorities is discouraged by the culture, according to Brother Mattson (and my experience/perception). Most of us just don't have access. This is one of the drawbacks of a very flat structure where nearly everything is done at the local level. The very few general authorities just can't physically do much more than the essentials, and they have decided answering historical and doctrinal or theological questions is not usually essential. Unfortunately, access isn't the only obstacle. Sometimes leaders--at different levels in the heirarchy--actively discourage questioning and searching. Also culturally, we most often say that only one person is allowed to get revelation on troubling theological questions (or at least allowed to express revelations publicly). Unfortunately, this is the same person saddled with the most administrative responsibility. There are also many teachings that we should seek our own inspiration and not rely on the prophet for everything. We need to learn to trust ourselves. It's understandable that many mid-ranking leaders would wish to spare their potentially overburdened superiors from frivolous demands, but all actions have consequences. So what is the fallout if an ordinary member, who will never get to know the Prophet, seeks his or her own answer? This is what I've seen and imagined:
  1. The new answer agrees with something already revealed, and everyone is happy. 
  2. The individual is satisfied to keep a subversive or contrary answer private, and everyone is happy. 
  3. The answer disagrees with current policy and is made public:
    1. It is minor enough, or local leaders are tolerant enough that the breach is allowed to exist.
    2. The person is alienated into leaving the LDS church, or at least decreasing activity.
    3. The person is disciplined into silence or leaving. 
    4. The disagreement with current policy or doctrinal perceptions is not of a kind that leaders and members fully recognize or understand, or it agrees with broader cultural norms so much that it gets ignored or accepted without conscious reflection.
    5. The issue is passed up the line until:
      1. It is stopped and the idea is silenced or disciplined.
      2. The president of the church takes it under consideration and we receive new guidance on the subject that is then instituted as a top down policy. 

Seeking an Official Answer

What does a member do who wants an official answer? This has always seemed reasonable to me, since we are told that we should seek answers from God, that God only speaks to the whole world, officially, through His Prophet, and some of the things we want answers for effect the whole world. How can that member know if an answer is being sought, or if the best questions are being taken to the Lord in prayer? If there are discussions of difficult historical, doctrinal, or social issues going on among church leaders--if revelation is being sought--how can a member know it?
  1. Trust it is happening, or that it isn't really important, because the Lord is at the head of the church.
  2. Infer it from public statements or policy changes, or hear it through rumors of varied quality. 
  3. Some lucky members can know what's being thought about from family and personal connections.
  4. Ask church leaders, but at best receive an acknowledgement your question was noticed, and at worst be sent back to ask powerless local leaders.

Knowledge Accessible to Ordinary Members

Ordinary members, and even leaders not in the privy councils, don't know what is being discussed, how it is being discussed, who is discussing it, what information is available to those discussing, what questions are being asked, what revelation is being sought, etc. They don't know the members of the 12 or other high leaders. What can most members know about church leaders? They may have:
  1. A personal testimony of the calling.
  2. A sense that these are loving, well-intentioned men (when you have any personal contact with them).
  3. Lots of stories of in the moment, personal, or administrative inspiration.
  4. Official church publications.
  5. Public speeches.
  6. Public policy decisions and webpages, sometimes filtered through several layers of governance.
  7. Several, infrequent statements, both scriptural and extra scriptural, that affirm the humanity, frailty, and fallibility of our leaders, and that we err when we expect them to be free from weakness or limitations.
  8. Several, but more frequent, statements that leaders are inspired and following God.
  9. Occasional teachings that God speaks according to our understanding and preparation.
  10. Teachings that we should be seeking and acting on our own revelation.
Many people feel unheard, unrepresented, and even unwelcome within the LDS church. This seems like a problem to me. We aspire to be at one, to take the Gospel to the whole world, and to save all humanity, so when we fall short because of our own choices it seems like a problem.

Projecting Onto Leaders

I'm going to project, now, onto my church leaders. All of them grew up pre-internet. Almost all of them, and perhaps all, grew up in a world where Mormonism wasn't respected. Many governments around the world did not officially recognize the LDS church. They knew people persecuted--truly, legally persecuted--by the country they lived in because they were trying to live their religion. They all understand that the sacred is not to be made public, so they understand keeping secrets. They have seen the fallout of public disagreements on inflammatory issues. I imagine that all these things lead to a bias against openness--a wariness. It's also possible that leaders are nearly as open as ever, but the church has gotten so big that size has effectively closed off the workings of leadership from the average member. Whatever the reasons, leaders keep decision making processes opaque to the vast majority of members. There are real, human dangers to openness. Unfortunately, we are experiencing the real, human dangers of opacity.

The Ideals I Hope For

I believe the ideal is complete transparency. We all struggle to do our parts, just as the Prophet does his, and while we don't flaunt our weaknesses, we don't seek to cover them. We create ways for the voices of the poor and the alienated to be heard, and we become of one heart and one mind.

The reality is, you open up and it's likely someone will slam you. So how can we, as we move in and out of positions of influence in the LDS church, change the institution toward the ideal of at-one-ment without opening it to destruction in this world red in tooth and claw?

I hope we can each and all begin to accept the responsibility to change this Church and Kingdom of God into the society where we are truly at one. We have a great starting place--a vast community where people teach and learn and give. What can we do to make it a place where we are changing hearts towards the vulnerability of Zion? If we want a community of gods--gods who don't have to turn to authority for every answer, because at some point there will be no higher authority or more knowledgeable expert--what must we do?

I think many of the tools are at hand. I also think we will have to use them in unsettling ways for many currently in authority and out--from the bottom to the top. I hope we will get started, anyway.



The Religious Marketplace

I listened to a brief interview with Jonathan Haidt in which he was asked if religion does more harm or good. He hesitated briefly because his answer was yes and no. He observed that in places like the United States, where there is robust competition among the different religious sects, religious people contribute more to society in a number of measurable ways than their non-religious counterparts. In places where one religion has a dominant control of society, the resulting evils can be very great.

Are Utah Mormons better people because they feel like their religion is in competition, even though it is the dominant religion in the area? I think the answer is yes and no. When that competition inspires them to choose to be a light to the world, it's clearly yes--institutionalized gambling, that we know makes most of its money off of the poor, less educated, and vulnerably compulsive, is still illegal there, thank God. And I love their example of housing the homeless. But not all the examples are good, of course. Would they be worse people if they felt like they could control society more? I expect so.

I don't have much more to say on it. I hope that when we find ourselves in any position of power that we actively seek compromise with those without or with less. I believe this means relinquishing some of our power and turning over a portion of real control to those who are differ from us and who are vulnerable. I can say right now that they will sometimes do things we don't want. But I truly believe it will make us better people and it will make for us a better world.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Past: from Aspiration to Inspiration

Just published this on Rational Faiths. Probably slightly more polished there.

The Restoration Completed

I have very nearly finished reading every general conference talk given by the first four presidents of the LDS church: Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff. As I'm working through Wilford Woodruff, a trend has stood out to me because it is in such contrast to my current life. Here are some quotes from 4 October 1890:
Our Heavenly Father revealed from heaven, over sixty years ago, to the inhabitants of the earth, through the mouth of the Prophet of God, whom He raised up, that He had set His hand once more, for the last time, to prune His vineyard and to prepare the people of the earth for the coming of the Son of Man.
These are some of the principles that have been taught from the time of Father Adam down to that of every Patriarch, Prophet, Apostle--and even the Savior himself--in their day and generation, as the only Gospel ever revealed to the human family in any age of the world. There has never been but one Gospel; that Gospel is "the same today, yesterday and forever." That Gospel is the same that was taught by Adam to his children; which Elijah, Methuselah, and all the ancient prophets and patriarchs taught to their posterity, and the inhabitants of the earth.
Now words like these aren't really very different from things Joseph or Brigham said, but something significant changed in the practical understanding of these ideas. You see, with Joseph, he thought he was simply restoring past teachings that had been lost. In many instances that is demonstrably true--Joseph was bringing together ideas that existed but were no longer part of Christendom. But the practical effect of viewing himself as a restorer of things that had been lost was an intense newness to much of what he did. Joseph looked back toward a past that was either lost, or had never really existed, and his resulting teachings and actions were effectively a projection into the future of the world he hoped to create. To paraphrase him, if we end up in Hell, we will cast out the devils and make a Heaven of it. Practically speaking, Joseph was about creating the future, not recreating the past--whatever he said or thought to the contrary.

Brigham Young was much the same. For years he hung on Joseph's every word, and he never lost sight of that, but Brigham acted like most everything was still up for modification. He repeatedly changed the temple ceremonies. He changed who could get the priesthood. He said if Joseph were to translate the Book of Mormon again, it would probably be substantially different. He experimented with the structure of the United Order. Brigham looked to past prophets, and quoted them when it suited him, but he wasn't shy about using their teachings to promote his modern agenda.

John Taylor was interesting and a little dull. He spent much of his presidency in hiding, writing long general addresses to the church while he avoided arrest for polygamy. Polygamy overshadowed most other topics, and he frequently wrote about hanging onto Joseph's teachings despite the pressures to let them go. It was almost like he didn't have time or energy to do more than defend what already was against active attack from the outside. He probably didn't.

Wilford Woodruff largely ended the conflict with the outside world after the declaration ending polygamy (or beginning the end of polygamy), but it seems like a consequence of this was the need to show that the current church was still the same as the past church. In effect, revelatory innovation all but died at this point.

Living the Restoration

As with many others, I spent my youth looking to know Joseph, looking to understand the Restoration he began, and looking for the light he revealed about God and Jesus. Things long lost could now be understood! Listen to our living prophets, and all we need to live holy lives would be given us, if we listened carefully enough and obeyed as best we could. And like many others, I tried to balance the listening to prophets with listening to the Holy Ghost--something all the prophets told us we should be doing. I tried to balance personal and institutional revelation. At some point my experiences, study, and natural inclinations led me to recognize conflicts between my personal experience of God and goodness and various cultural norms. Later on I began to recognize differences between my own revelation and institutional revelation. I found that more and more of my real questions were not well answered by appeals to past prophets. I could find inspiration in their words. I could often interpret their words in ways that gave me useful answers. But the answers weren't really in their words. The answers were in other books I read with, for example, more detailed information about the history of life on earth, with more thorough, statistical analyses of parenting and relationships, with more specialized knowledge of social and individual psychology, or with more technical knowledge about likely future trends in technology and its influence on the future of humanity. Looking to past prophets was answering fewer and fewer of my unanswered questions.

What of looking to living prophets? Feel free to evaluate the evidence yourself, but I began to notice that most of what they taught referenced past prophets. This makes great sense to me, but it means that little that they teach answers my unanswered questions.

Now it would be wrong to say that I don't look to the past. I am constantly reading books that by definition are past knowledge. Many of the books I read and love aren't even recent. I still derive great worth from dead prophets--even thousands of years dead. But I have lost the religion of my youth. I have lost the wonder at finding everything important I wanted to know had been talked about by a past prophet. I haven't lost the desire to learn from history. I still think we must learn from it or suffer the same errors, but I no longer yearn for a magical past--the days of Adam when everyone had the unadulterated Gospel nearly straight from the mouth of God.

Still Longing for Zion

I haven't lost my longing for Zion. I have lost any hope that we can build it by recreating the city of Enoch or Mesoamerica after Christ's visit. That isn't our world. Our world is now, and our world is coming. We are shaped by the past. We are wise to look to the past. But I have lost the trust in the past I had as a youth. The trust I have left is really a hope--a hope that God is there, a hope that our Heavenly Parents really set us on a path to be like them, a hope that we really can partake of the Atonement and become one as children of Heavenly Parents.

I'm still a believer that the most important task of this life is to show we are morally good--especially loving--individuals. That's it. Love. Everything else is secondary, or as Paul put it, without Love I'm just a noise maker. But for me the best expression of that love is how I contribute to building Zion. And for me building Zion is about looking to the future. It isn't about getting ordinances (that I imagined were more constant than they ever really were) to all the world. It isn't about spreading sound bites about the nature of God to all the world. But I still believe in doing those things, because it is about covenanting with the world to take upon me their burdens. To live with them throughout eternity, knowing that I will sometimes hurt them and they will sometimes hurt me. It is about sharing what truth I have and looking to learn from their truths. And that covenant has never changed. It has never lost its value. God's promise to save his children--every single one who will be saved--has been around forever. At least I hope so. That's my faith in the past. That's why I long for a Mormonism that is more about living the restoration than about knowing what has already been done. A Mormonism that judges what is right by its fruits more than by what a past prophet has said.

Maybe it's a stage of life. I physically and socially can't be part of Mormonism the way I was as a youth. I can't serve in church the way I did from age 18 to 37, so I have to see Mormonism differently or simply accept that I'm a bad Mormon--and maybe I don't want to accept that. But I like to think that life pushing me to the fringe of Mormonism has given me added perspective. I like to think it has given me more empathy. I like to think it has given me clearer direction about how I, in my special life that Heavenly Mother and Father laid out just for me, how I am to show that I'm a loving being. How I am supposed to help build Zion. How I am to give my all to build up the kingdom of God. For me it seems to mean more imagining the future, inspired by the past, and less aspiring to the past.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Wanderings

P1040708
Prone to Wander, Lord
2001

He wanders far from crowds, on quiet paths,
Slowly, in dark thoughts of human weakness,
In shade of trees and guilt, in cold iso-
lation of an early winter morning
And narcissistic self-pity.  But one
Prone to wander is not prone to stop
For long.  Even in despair he’ll wander
Through this vale of fears, and shadows give way
To fields and the bright risen sun and hope
Of the new day—another chance to give.
Warm sunlight and chance encounters drive
Out cold as friends and couples walk through fall
Reds and yellows.  Authors, poets, and prophets
Turn dark thoughts and keep the wanderer company,
And family stories chase his blank, cold stare.
Maybe a smile, a greeting, or a tear
Wanders on the wanderer’s face, and prayer
Wanders into his heart as he wanders
Back to his home and to his Father’s rest.

I used to do a lot of walking. Now I'm on the brink of becoming a "soccer dad" (you can't get your kids to their friends houses without driving). But I think my mind and heart are still wandering toward home. It's nice that I don't wander alone much, anymore, and I hang my hat on my head and keep my heart with me, so I can always remember that where I'm headed is in many ways already here.

And here's a favorite hymn.