Monday, June 24, 2013

The Dead and the Living: Alternative Perspectives

I requested feedback on my original post from my parents and a couple of friends who I suspected held a different view of LDS church finances than I. I'm very glad I did, as it enriched my understanding and reminded me of many other elements that play into our analysis. This post at times assumes some belief in selected LDS doctrines, and I make no attempt to argue strictly from a this-world-only rational perspective. With that warning, let's dive right in:

Limiting ourselves to comparing spending on temples and proselyting to spending on the poor, I think it is useful to list the groups and benefits being examined. In my last post, I hopefully gave reasons a critic might pause and examine the complex dynamics of individuals and institutions before concluding that the LDS church is wasteful and uncaring. So even from a this-life-only perspective, it isn't so obvious that the LDS church has not chosen an approach that maximizes the good it can do in relieving the suffering of the poor and needy. But as Latter-day Saints who are choosing to participate in this institution, and who want it to do the most possible good it can, we need to look more closely at what we are claiming when we say we can't justify the billions spent on temples when there are so many poor who could be helped with so relatively little. When I count the variables I find this:

Groups Affected:
  1. God
  2. Spirits in the spirit world
  3. Patrons in the temples
  4. Non-temple attending LDSs
  5. Poor people
Benefits weighed:
  1. Length of mortal life
  2. Quality of mortal life for the poor
  3. Quality of mortal life for temple patrons
  4. Quality of life for spirits in the spirit world
  5. Quality of eternal life for each of the groups
If you don't believe in a post-mortal life, or you don't believe that what we do here matters as regards that life, then I refer you back to my previous post, and suggest that you still have to do some legwork to conclude the LDS church is not using its resources in a way that optimally helps the poor. If you do believe in a post-mortal life that is affected by this one, then look with me at some assumptions we might be making when we assert that the LDS church should spend money currently dedicated to temples, temple building, and missionary work towards helping the poor.

Here are a couple I made. I allowed that volunteer hours on "religious" activities don't help anyone's "social needs". The authors of the study were not clear in defining the differences between the religious and social needs, but I assume social needs include the relatively easily quantifiable benefits that people outside of the LDS church would admit have value--food, shelter, employment, and healthcare. I assume everything else is excluded, whether accurately or no. It seems like a reasonable decision for the purposes of the study. I also assumed that the only benefit (or only important benefit) of temple work and proselyting is in giving us a sense of authenticity. I do not believe this. I'm a true blue Mormon in believing that saving ordinances really matter, even if I'm not as worried as I used to be about getting everybody baptized LDS in this life. But even if I didn't believe proselyting and temple work were of direct and immediate benefit to people, I would still need to consider seriously that they might have tangible, social needs value in this life that goes beyond making Latter-day Saints feel good. As my Dad brought up, when the benefits of "religious" activities were questioned, there are likely many social benefits from these practices where the division between "social needs" and "religious activities" is very gray, and possibly non-existent:
How about teaching children to live moral, upright, concerned lives?
How about parents assisting one another in the rearing of their children?
How about teaching members that they need to care for the poor? and giving them direct outlets to help: fast offerings, humanitarian funds, bishops' storehouses, Deseret Industries, employment services, service missions, perpetual education funds, really serious service projects?
How about teaching members to live providently, to get an education, to live healthy lives, to care for the aged, to give of their time and talents?
How about teaching love for ancestors, family, descendants? a constant reminder that others are truly important?
How about giving people a supportive center from which they can reach out to others?
How about the myriads of hours spent in care for the emotionally needy, widows, orphans, single parents? Bishops spend more like the time of a full-time job, not only in planning, but in direct aid to others. . . . My patriarchal blessings says that I will be blessed "with plenty AND TO SHARE," and so I'd better share.
In addition to the problematic division between religious and social needs, here is a list of some other assumptions my respondents helped me see or remember:
  • God's house doesn't need to be as well built as we are making it
  • The length and quality of life of a poor person, here and now, is worth more than the quality of life of a spirit. Or possibly, the ordinances we do here don't really do anything for the dead spirits.
  • Temples and temple attendance don't improve the quantity and quality of work that Latter-day Saints do for the poor.
  • Religious and temple service are not effective at teaching and supporting highly moral lifestyles which bless the individuals and those around them, or the benefits of the religious teaching and service are not of sufficient value to merit the time and resources spent on them.
  • The benefits to the individual of being free of poverty are greater than the benefits of being LDS.
  • LDS leaders are unaware, mistaken, powerless, glory hungry, or greedy in their allocation of church resources.
Maybe we don't need to build God's house so well. Maybe it isn't even His house. That could be true, but we have to realize we are making this claim when we criticize temple building practices.

Maybe a poor person's well-being in the here and now really is more valuable than the benefits of baptism to a soul in the spirit world, but we have to recognize we are making that judgment. We are deciding that one person is more worthy of our help than another. I believe that each of us must make this choice, and that we shouldn't turn our choice over to anyone else, but I do not imagine that the choice is as trivial as those who only believe in this life would make it.

How much do temple patrons give in money and service to the social needs of others? How does this compare with other groups, in and out of the LDS church? How about less tangible benefits to individual well-being? What assumptions are we making about the relative values of these things?

Religious and temple service obviously have benefits in volunteer hours for those involved in them. Maybe they aren't perfectly optimized benefits, but have we weighed the societal benefits provided by the moral teachings of Latter-day Saints? That's really hard to do, and I know many who have concluded the benefits aren't worth the costs or the harms, but it's easy to criticize, and really hard to make a concrete proposal that is provably better.

Do we really believe that LDS leaders are making qualitatively wrong choices about how to allocate the resources of this church? It's quite different to claim that they should tweak things to do incrementally better than to say that they should completely revamp their goals. Are we making specific, measurable, achievable suggestions for improvement?

I don't mean these questions purely rhetorically. I'm sure some of you have answers to these that are different from mine, and that you have pretty clear answers to some of them. But there are a lot of assumptions here, and it's important we face up to them.

I'd like to end with a couple of quotes. First from my Mom:
The LDS concept of "giving to the poor" seems to me different from what society generally has in mind. Our view spans pre-earth and post-earth existence. The goal is more than donating: it is to assist individuals in helping themselves in that eternal setting. We are a network. We have much to learn to mature as gods. What would you do to help your children learn attitudes and skills necessary for that maturation process?
After reading Paul's post, specifically because he asks what we think God would have us do, I had a thought like this somewhat blunt one my Dad shared:
For people who don't believe in the afterlife, the actuality of work for the dead, or the fact that the temple is the House of the Lord, and therefore worthy of our most serious and careful work, they, like Judas Iscariot who objected to the money spent on the balm with which Jesus was anointed, think that the money is best spent on taking care of the poor. This we ought to do, and not omit the other. [emphasis added]
We have different perspectives, and if we have humility in the things we do and don't know, we will recognize that others can choose differently than we do and still be rational and good people. So one more quote from my Mom:
Perhaps we can choose to describe [the process of increasing the good we do as members of the LDS church] as Exploration together, critics and complacents. Since the organization won’t debate, why try to engage it (them/[ourselves])? If we are sincere in our efforts to effect change, we should be smart and honest. If it sticks in our craw that the church doesn’t do it our way, we should be honest about that. Rancor doesn’t win friends. The best change happens when we link arms and walk forward. Getting people to link arms is tricky. It happens best when we’re feeling friendly.
I think the questions of how we use our time, talents, and all that the Lord has given us are intensely hard questions to answer. I think they are extremely important questions to ask. If you imagine the answers are easy, or easier than I think they are as regards LDS church finances, it's possible we don't live in the same world. It's likely we don't live in the same worldview. But as I said at the end of last post, can we build Zion, together? Can we be authentically Mormon and live all the things that will lead to the immortality and eternal life of humankind? I'd like to join with anyone trying to get there, and I hope you'll take me along.

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