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.