Saturday, January 7, 2017

"Milk Before Meat" and Honesty

Is Honesty Important?

One of my biggest concerns when I started studying the history of the LDS church, which I was raised in, was the lack of honesty shown by leaders at times. This comes into particular focus with the events surrounding polygamy. Quite simply, leaders who were sustained as prophets practiced polygamy in secret and lied about it from the pulpit, particularly around the times of the start end end of LDS polygamy (see my earlier blog post for more information and D. Michael Quinn's paper). For me, that has some really disturbing implications. Once the precedent that a prophet can lie about church doctrine has been established, trust is gone. How can anyone assure me that Thomas S. Monson or Dallin H. Oaks aren't today going around secretly marrying teen girls? I don't think they are, but it would not be outside of established precedent for them to be doing something like that today and lying about it in public. How could I possibly trust prophets who have demonstrated their willingness to lie when it is convenient for them (or for God, if you want to push the responsibility to God)?

Some have told me that I shouldn't be bothered by this, but I am only bothered by it because of the strong emphasis placed on honesty in my upbringing, which was reinforced by very clear teachings of this same church.  For example, here are some excerpts from the Gospel Principles manual (a lesson book of "the basics" of the religion) lesson on honesty:
Complete honesty is necessary for our salvation. President Brigham Young said, "If we accept salvation on the terms it is offered to us, we have got to be honest in every thought, in our reflections, in our meditations, in our private circles, in our deals, in our declarations, and in every act of our lives" (Irony alert! Brigham Young was one of the polygamy insiders in the early church who was aware of and participated in the deception.)
...
God is honest and just in all things (see Alma 7:20). We too must be honest in all things to become like Him.
...
Lying is intentionally deceiving others. Bearing false witness is one form of lying. The Lord gave this commandment to the children of Israel: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour" (Exodus 20:16). Jesus also taught this when He was on earth (see Matthew 19:18). There are many other forms of lying. When we speak untruths, we are guilty of lying. We can also intentionally deceive others by a gesture or a look, by silence, or by telling only part of the truth. Whenever we lead people in any way to believe something that is not true, we are not being honest. 
The Lord is not pleased with such dishonesty, and we will have to account for our lies. Satan would have us believe it is all right to lie. He says, "Yea, lie a little; . there is no harm in this" (2 Nephi 28:8). Satan encourages us to justify our lies to ourselves. Honest people will recognize Satan's temptations and will speak the whole truth, even if it seems to be to their disadvantage.
...
People use many excuses for being dishonest. People lie to protect themselves and to have others think well of them. Some excuse themselves for stealing, thinking they deserve what they took, intend to return it, or need it more than the owner. Some cheat to get better grades in school or because "everyone else does it" or to get even. 
These excuses and many more are given as reasons for dishonesty. To the Lord, there are no acceptable reasons. When we excuse ourselves, we cheat ourselves and the Spirit of God ceases to be with us. We become more and more unrighteous.
These are pretty clear stances on honesty, right? Not a lot of room for loopholes or exceptions. Here is some more from a talk given by Apostle Marvin J. Ashton:
Not often do students remember for 24 hours very many words taught by their teachers. Yet 50 years later some former students recall with lasting appreciation the words one teacher had her class repeat at the beginning of each day. Every school morning this rather unpretentious, plain, wise lady implanted the meaning of honesty into our minds by having us recite "A lie is any communication given to another with the intent to deceive." 
When I compare this definition with that found in the dictionary, which states, "A lie is an untrue statement made with the intent of deceiving," I greatly appreciate her definition. A lie can be effectively communicated without words ever being spoken. Sometimes a nod of the head or silence can deceive. Recommending a questionable business investment, making a false entry in a ledger, devious use of flattery, or failure to divulge all pertinent facts are a few other ways to communicate the lie. 
After having us go through this daily ritual, this wonderful lady, who never married but who had such a motherly influence over many of us, would teach with few words the importance of communicating truth under all circumstances. Often she simply said, "Don't tell lies. Don't share lies. Don't participate in lies." 
How serious is lying? We have a clue when we read all through the scriptures that Satan is the father of lies. His method of teaching this evil practice is illustrated in the tenth section of the Doctrine and Covenants: "Yea, he [Satan] saith unto them: Deceive and lie . ; behold, this is no harm. And thus he . telleth them that it is no sin to lie. . And thus he . causeth them to catch themselves in their own snare." (D&C 10:25-26.)
Again, this is pretty clear teaching. Don't lie. Ever. It is always wrong. So what am I supposed to make of lies uttered by self-proclaimed prophets about church doctrine (such as polygamy) from the pulpit? Where did these men get the idea that is was okay to lie about church doctrines?

Milk Before Meat or Bait and Switch?

Joseph Smith himself sometimes used the "Milk Before Meat" justification when dealing with polygamy-related deception. Basically, the rationale is that we don't talk about something that someone isn't ready to hear. It is okay to practice selective disclosure and void someone's right to informed consent if that person isn't "ready" for the information yet. The use of this rationale is a tacit acknowledgement that the person using it knows that the information in question would be disturbing in some way to the person receiving it and that it should therefore be hidden. Where does this justification come from and can it be reconciled with the definitions of honesty above?

"Milk Before Meat" comes from Jesus himself in Doctrine and Covenants Section 19 (A revelation to Joseph Smith from Jesus). The main purpose of this revelation is to tell Martin Harris to pay to get the Book of Mormon published, but there is a very interesting little tangent that Jesus goes off on about the true meanings of the terms "endless torment" and "eternal damnation." This starts in verses 6-12:
 6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
 7 Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name's glory.
 8 Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles.
 9 I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest.
 10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore-
 11 Eternal punishment is God's punishment.
 12 Endless punishment is God's punishment.
Basically, Jesus is letting Martin and Joseph in on the secret that the words "Endless" and "Eternal" don't mean what everybody thinks they mean, but this is okay "that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name's glory." In other words, it is okay that everyone has a false impression of what these words mean, because it will end up having a desirable result. The ends justify the means. It seems that Jesus is advocating that complete honesty can be sacrificed if the results are desirable.  Later in the section, Jesus commands them not to teach what they have learned:
21 And I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me.
 22 For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore, they must not know these things, lest they perish.
And there is the genesis of "milk before meat." Jesus is okay with this type of deception, after all these are Jesus's own words.

Is Lying Okay?

Now I don't believe any of this. I'm jumping into a world that I consider fictional just for the sake of argument. I believe that Joseph made all of this up so that he could get Martin Harris to bankroll the printing of a book. There are lots of reasons that I came to this conclusion but the biggest is that I can't turn myself into the huge moral pretzel that I would have to be to make this all work out. There are too many moral contradictions here. Does God expect perfect honesty or not? It really shouldn't be hard to come up with a simple answer on that.

My own views on honesty have changed a bit since I started taking more responsibility for my own moral reasoning. I used to view life through the lens of rules-based moral reasoning. In rules-based moral reasoning, you have a list of rules and you try to live your life without breaking any of them. Sometimes, this proves impossible as sometimes a situation arises where you can't keep all of the rules at once. Now the rule has been broken and if you are like me and you want to keep all the rules, you feel bad because you screwed up (even if it wasn't possible to keep all the rules at once). 

I finally read a children's book by an evil atheist named Dan Barker where he explained principles-based moral reasoning. You decide what your moral principles are and how important they are relative to one another. Then each time a situation is before you that demands a moral choice, you can evaluate the possible choices against your moral principles (taking into account the relative importance of each of your principles). The example he gave in the book was of a sick and suffering pet dog that has no chance of recovery. One might have a moral principle that says not to kill animals, but also have a competing moral principle to prevent suffering whenever possible. A person might reasonably conclude that the right action in this case is to have the dog put to sleep even though that is against one of their moral principles.

I think many faithful Mormons would argue that Mormonism advocates principles-based moral reasoning. I would both agree and disagree. I don't think that LDS leaders think it all the way through a lot of the time and speak out of both sides of their mouth. You can probably find ample support for either position. Many church lessons on honesty should be much less absolute. They should include discussion of when it might be appropriate to lie (like to save Anne Frank from the gas chamber or something), but they frequently don't do that. They just say: "Never lie." The lesson cited at the beginning of this post reads like it is advocating for rules-based moral reasoning, and this is the lesson manual that is meant to teach the basics of the faith. If there is a time to get moral reasoning clear and correct, it is in that manual.

Now it is possible that Joseph and others lied about polygamy from the pulpit because they felt they had some higher moral principle in mind when they lied. Unfortunately the only obvious candidates to me are to gain more converts (dishonestly by fraud, basically) or to save their own collective asses from the consequences of their actions, neither of which strikes me as a particularly noble moral principle to be prioritizing above honesty.

As I contemplate all of this, the words of Thomas Paine come to mind. Paine had difficulty believing in the Old Testament due to what he viewed as moral inconsistencies in the behavior of God. He stated:
Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice.
I feel very similarly with Mormonism. The logical inconsistencies are hard to swallow but the moral inconsistencies are impossible, and that alone is sufficient to determine my choice. I don't even have to go as far as to be bothered by lack of Book of Mormon archaeology or Native American DNA studies or any of that. If God or Jesus can't bother to tell me the truth then why should I bother with God or Jesus?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Self-Weeding Garden

I once read an article that talked about a concept that the author of the article called a "self-weeding garden." Now, I think that term has been used to mean different things in a lot of contexts so I'll just state that the author of the article used it to mean a social system that makes itself hospitable for the types of people it is looking to attract and inhospitable for the types of people it is not. The "weeds" will then remove themselves rather than cause problems in the garden.

I just got to thinking about that again after reading an essay talking about apostates in belief systems that had an interesting paragraph:
Yet another frequently employed tactic is used when a believer does come into contact with an apostate, despite the careful shielding that most traditions erect. This strategy seeks to reduce the believer’s dissonance by assuming that the apostate fell away due to some unacknowledged sin, or some other flaw on the part of the former adherent. It is extremely important, for the believer’s state of mind, that the blame for the apostasy must fall squarely on the shoulders of the apostate himself. It is quite literally unthinkable that the fault could lie with the system itself. This line of reasoning must be avoided at all costs.
I've had the pleasure of seeing this one from both sides. Five or six years ago I would have absolutely agreed that the only way a believer could leave my faith *was* because they were deficient in some way and brought it upon them self. I probably parroted these types of thoughts. Now I'm on the other side. Ain't Karma great...

What dawned on me when I read that paragraph is that this attitude by the faithful is a large part of what makes the system a self-weeding garden. It really hurts when your beliefs don't match the group and you repeatedly listen to leaders of the group insinuate that you are a bad person for not believing like they do, and it is orders of magnitude more awful when those you love and respect throw these jabs at you. It makes you want to just walk away and never look back. Only that is many times not possible due to family situations.

Recently, I just read another article that repeats this pattern at the Deseret News, Mormons with doubts shouldn't give up faith without 'intellectual and spiritual kicking and screaming'. It is pretty standard fare for denigrating those who leave the fold (and trying to convince people not to be those "bad people" by leaving). They just didn't try hard enough or don't have the virtues of people who stay. Honestly, I don't know what to say about it. I feels like a hit job on me and makes me feel terrible and unwanted. It is very hard to maintain even a limited relationship with a church that has such an uncharitable view of me. In my view I was simply honest with myself about what I believed and felt, and acted accordingly and with integrity. Yet I am deficient. I am deficient because I can't manage to muster faith in things that frankly make me sick (e.g. many of the circumstances of early LDS polygamy) or things that in my view just plain contradict reality (Facsimile 3, I'm looking at you).

But if you think about it, shouldn't the burden of explaining why such faith is a virtue be on the person asking me to have faith? I've not heard a single explanation on that subject that made any bit of sense to me.

Allow me to elaborate on the problem as I see it. *IF* having faith in something that is difficult to believe is a virtue (as I consider many of Joseph's actions to be difficult to believe, or any number of things in the LDS belief system), wouldn't faith that is *more* difficult to believe be *more* of a virtue? If it is virtuous to have faith that Joseph's questionable polygamous activities with teen girls and other men's wives was from God, wouldn't it be *more* virtuous to believe that Warren Jeffs' even more questionable activities are from God? If blind faith (faith where God refuses to explain himself) is good, the more the better, right? Apparently, in this type of system, God has little interest in us developing our own moral or logical faculties, he just wants us to use those of the church leaders. This is a very honest problem to me. Yet *I* am the one who is morally deficient for asking these questions and not believing despite what I consider to be very obvious huge red flags. This is all turned around, upside down, and inside out. The burden of making the case for faith lies with God or his leaders or whomever, not with me to refute, and no such case has been made in any sort of compelling way.

Back to the subject of the self-weeding garden, this type of article simply makes me want to get away, to leave this kind of toxic "love" behind. I see a lot of good in the LDS social system, but it is articles like these (and the lessons, and the comments, etc. etc.) that make me wonder if even my very limited level of participation is a net positive in my life. One thing is for sure, it doesn't make me want to participate more than I already do, and that may be a feature of the system (intentional or not), not a bug.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Atonement: Why Can't God Just Forgive?



From my earliest memories as a small child, I have heard countless stories and personal testimonials of how much comfort people gain from "the atonement." I've found it difficult to find similar comfort and assurance myself, mostly due to lingering questions and issues that I have never been able to resolve and will detail here, but it is undeniable that this is an extremely powerful idea to a lot of my good friends. Anyway, I am going to untangle my thoughts on atonement theology and hopefully it will be of interest and/or help to others who don't fit the mold like me, or anyone else who wants to read a differing view.

What is the Atonement?

Since I grew up Mormon, my view of atonement theology will be forever centered from that perspective, so maybe it would be helpful to distill the basics of Mormon atonement theology. My summary will mirror Chapter 12 of the LDS Gospel Principles manual.

First, God created mankind. Then there was a fall which was a result of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. This fall caused death to come into the world. Mormons talk of two types of death that result from the fall, physical and spiritual. Physical death is exactly what it sounds like. Spiritual death means that mankind has to be forever separated from God.

The only way that this crappy situation could be fixed is if someone who was perfect and was sired by God himself (Jesus) came along and fixed it for us. (Aside: In Mormon theology, Jesus and God are entirely separate people which is a notable difference from other Christians.) Jesus makes a sacrifice during which time he suffers every bad thing that has ever happened to anyone who ever lived and who will ever live all at once. In Mormon theology, this happens in the garden when he prays, not on the cross.

After Jesus accomplishes this, he gains the power to solve the problems introduced with the fall. He extends the power to be resurrected at some future point to everyone who ever lived and who will ever will live. He does this for free basically. Everyone who ever lived will get this gift. He also makes it so that whoever has faith in him and does what he wants them to will be able to live with God again. Faith in Jesus is of the utmost importance, though. You skip that, you get nothing to fix spiritual death. Being a kind and generous person by itself won't get you there. Jesus also has a lot of boxes that need to be checked off in church for this to work for you, and the only church that can get those boxes checked for you is the Mormon church.

I imagine that other Christian churches vary somewhat in the details here but nearly all will have reasons that they have the means to check off all of the correct boxes to make this atonement effective and make it so that we can be reconciled with God.

Now, I want to expound on one point above; the part where Jesus suffers everything that anyone has ever suffered or will ever suffer all at once. This is a very powerful idea for a lot of people, the idea that there is a being out there who loves them perfectly and who perfectly empathizes with all of their suffering. I have had a lot of difficulty tapping into this comfort. I have always been bothered by the fact that what I viewed as pointless suffering on my part had to be foisted on Jesus as well. It seemed like an unjust system that required the doubling all of the total suffering in the universe. We are told that it has to be that way and the only possible answer to the question "Why?" is "We'll find out after we die." It turns out that a great number of basic and fundamental questions have to be answered that way. But it is undeniable that a great many good people gain a great deal of comfort from knowing that Jesus experienced all of the suffering that they have ever felt and then some.

Some Basic Problems and Questions

So what are my problems and/or seemingly unanswerable questions with respect to the atonement?

First, I don't feel fallen. The idea just doesn't feel right to me. I'm trying my best to be good person and I think that alone makes me a good person. I am "enough" just as I am. I didn't make a decision eat any fruit, so God needs to take this up with Adam and Eve if it creates issues for him.

Second, I don't find any of this logical or obvious. It is a tangled spaghetti, logically speaking, full of non-sequitur and begging the question. I'll elaborate more below. Furthermore, I feel alienated from everyone around me at church because they all act like it is obvious. It is a very lonely feeling to have questions that no one around you seems to have.

Third, I feel disturbed by the image of God that this paints. This is a God who cannot consider me acceptable until someone pays him an infinite amount of money, a God who can't forgive me for anything I do until blood is shed, a God who doesn't seem very loving. In fact under this model, God doesn't seem to stack up very well against many men I know in real life as far as ability to forgive goes. What makes it so that God cannot forgive us without an atonement? I guess we'll find out after we die?

Fourth, the primacy of faith seems out of order. Why is it seemingly more important that I believe that Jesus did all of these specific things 2000+ years ago than it is to be kind to our fellow man? Maybe it isn't, but the message I got loud growing up Mormon is that kindness counts for very little without faith in Jesus and the church.

The Packer Parable

Boyd K. Packer, an LDS Apostle, related a parable to teach about the atonement in 1977. In fact, the lesson linked above is mostly that parable quoted, and it illustrates the dominant Mormon view of the atonement quite well. The short version is that a man takes out a loan and is careless in repaying it. One day, it comes due and the lender threatens to have him imprisoned. Along comes a third party who pays the debt and makes newer, more favorable terms with the man. I suppose the first man represents God the Father and the second, Jesus.

From this story comes the "mercy vs. justice" idea that is common in Mormon atonement theology. "Mercy cannot rob justice" is stated frequently in church. If Jesus comes along a pays the debt, he can redraw the terms of the loan as he sees fit but God cannot because he is on the side of "justice." I've always had a big problem with this explanation. It seems like a false dichotomy and it doesn't really solve the problem. It also paints God as incapable of mercy.

One of my favorite books is Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The main point that the book makes (and quite well) is that mercy and justice often go hand in hand. Mercy is often justice and justice is often mercy. I do not consider "mercy cannot rob justice" to be an obvious conclusion. It does not make sense to me. The Mormon argument in favor of "mercy cannot rob justice" will invariably come down to begging the question.

But let's just assume for the sake of argument that "mercy cannot rob justice." If that is true, why is extending mercy robbing justice if God does it but not if Jesus does it? We have simply pushed the problem to another individual. And on the other side of the coin, why can't God just decide to rewrite the terms of the loan? It is God's loan for crying out loud, is it not? Why does the loan need to be repaid and then forgiven by someone else? Why the middleman? It is unclear why, but it does appear from this parable that God is indeed incapable of forgiveness.

Let me make a quick digression here. I can't describe how effective this type of story has been in making me feel alienated from God. Throughout my church life, God has been the ultimate Alpha personality. He demands that I do things that I dislike just to see if I will do it. He gives me explanations that do not make sense, just to see if I will take them on faith and believe them anyway. He doesn't forgive, doesn't see me as acceptable, and he hits me because he loves me. Jesus, his son, loves me with a perfect love but has a nearly endless checklist of things I have to complete before he will make me acceptable to God.

Thomas Paine Refutes the Debt Model of Atonement

But let's get back to the Packer Parable or what I'll call the debt model of Atonement (really, atonement theology is very complex with lots of views and I'm not even close to doing them justice, just covering what I learned in my youth and why it doesn't work for me). Thomas Paine puts voice to things that bothered me on a subconscious level all my life:
Since, then no external evidence can, at this long distance of time, be produced to prove whether the Church fabricated the doctrines called redemption or not (for such evidence, whether for or against, would be subject to the same suspicion of being fabricated), the case can only be referred to the internal evidence which the thing carries within itself; and this affords a very strong presumption of its being a fabrication. For the internal evidence is that the theory or doctrine of redemption has for its base an idea of pecuniary Justice, and not that of moral Justice. 
If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me; but if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed; moral Justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty, even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose Justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself; it is then no longer Justice, it is indiscriminate revenge. (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason)
The first time I read this I was finally able to put a voice to what bothered me about the "mercy cannot rob justice" line of thinking. It was the fact that "justice" wasn't moral justice at all. It was indiscriminate revenge masquerading as moral justice. Mormon theology makes an attempt at equating pecuniary justice and moral justice, but Paine astutely points out that they are not the same thing at all.

How Does it Compare to Alternative Views?

Mormons place a great importance on being led by "the Spirit." From a young age I was conditioned that God would use the Holy Ghost to confirm to me (through my feelings) that the things I was taught were true. I never received such a confirmation with respect to "mercy cannot rob justice" atonement theology. However, I *have* had such peaceful and positive emotional experiences from other alternate points of view. Here is an example of one from a fictional preacher:
I says, 'Maybe it ain't a sin. Maybe it's just the way folks is. Maybe we been whippin' the hell out of ourselves for nothin'.' An' I thought how some sisters took to beatin' theirselves with a three-foot shag of bobwire. An' I thought how maybe they liked to hurt themselves, an' maybe I liked to hurt myself. Well, I was layin' under a tree when I figured that out, and I went to sleep. And it come night, and' it was dark when I come to. They was a coyote squawkin' near by. Before I knowed it, I was sayin' out loud, 'The hell with it! There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say.' I says, 'What's this call, this sperit?' An' I says, 'It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust, sometimes.' An' I says, 'Don't you love Jesus?' Well, I thought and' thought, and ' finally I says, 'No, I don't know nobody name' Jesus, I know a bunch of stories, bit I only love people, An' sometimes I love 'em fit to bust, an' I want to make 'em happy, so I been preachin' somepin I thought would make 'em happy.' An' then-I been talkin' a hell of a lot. Maybe you wonder about me using bad words. Well, they ain't bad to me no more. They're jus' words folks use, and' they don't mean nothing bad with 'em. Anyways, I'll tell you one more thing I thought out; an' from a preacher it's the most unreligious thing, and I can't be a preacher no more because I thought it an' I believe it. I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road, I figgered, 'Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,' I figgered, 'maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one bit soul ever'body's a part of.' Now I sat there thinkin' it, an' all of a suddent-I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it. (Casy's monologue from The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck)
I simply just can't find a good reason to believe what I was taught as a child over what fictional Rev. Casy teaches above.

Mormon atonement theology strikes at the heart of why I find the entire LDS church experience to be deeply unfulfilling, anxiety-inducing, and depressing. The thing I hunger for most is the thing most consistently denied to me: acceptance. Disapproval reigns supreme, and it is baked into the most fundamental levels of the theology. Never in this lifetime will I be told that I am basically good, unless of course I am one of the lucky few Mormons to receive my Second Anointing ceremony (but that's a subject for a whole 'nuther blog post).

This is my experience. I know that the experience of others will differ and I acknowledge that your emotional reality in the LDS church may not bear any resemblance whatsoever to my own.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Church Doesn't Hide its History

"...but the church doesn't hide its history. You could have studied this any time you wanted to."

I don't know how many times someone has told me this when I share with them how betrayed I felt when I started studying LDS church history in detail. Besides being a very dismissive comment, it is just not true. The church has carefully crafted its historical narrative. They spend every year out of four in Sunday School discussing church history. It is just that a small subset of the historical knowledge base is emphasized. Is that the same as hiding history? I think so but that is debatable.

But what is not debatable is what I just pulled up on lds.org. The church has been making more and more historical documents available, such as Joseph F. Smith's journals. Good for them for doing this.

But check out these couple of pages (view images 10 and 11 here):





What's with the big black blocks?!?!?!?!? 

Well, it turns out that we know roughly what is in that section because a few people have seen it and one of them, D. Michael Quinn, actually transcribed it and that transcript actually resides in his notes today and is publicly known. Basically, the entry makes reference to the fact that in the Council of Fifty meetings in Nauvoo, everyone swore to be subject to a death penalty if they revealed what went on in the meetings. Unflattering stuff for sure, but not as unflattering in my opinion as being caught hiding stuff like this. That is very unbecoming behavior for an organization that claims to have more truth than any other on the earth. This is exactly the kind of behavior that showed me that I cannot trust the church to level with me.

And please, if you are one of those people going around gaslighting those of us who have lost trust in the institution of the LDS church, telling us that the church has always been open with its history, please please stop. Stop right now.

The church is surely getting better at this but it has a ways to go. The Council of Fifty meeting minutes are scheduled to be released next month. But the fact is that they have been hidden up to and past the point of this writing on 8/12/16.

Hopefully they will remove these (and any other) black blocks out of the LDS historical documents that they have published soon.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Insight into the Experience of Doubt

I recently read a blog post Kayla Lemmon that discussed Tyler Glenn's new music video in which he expresses his pain and anger at the LDS church. The purpose of my post is not to discuss the blog post or the music video, although I found both interesting. I just found a response to a comment on the blog by someone named Kerry to be particularly insightful and thought I'd share it.

TK's Comment (parent comment):
Having seen many fall away from the Church, my heart also aches for these individuals. 
My problem is the approach of many of these departing brothers and sisters. I understand that they are hurt. Often, when the culture (not the doctrine) is the cause of the pain, they have every reason to be hurt. 
But, when I speak with offended or questioning individuals (and I have on many occasions), they have never been willing to approach their Bishop and discuss their concerns. They are never willing to speak to leaders or reach out to those members that sincerely want to help them. Instead, they reach out to the John Dehlins or the media. Instead, they attend the Saturday afternoon session of general conference so they can scream “no” at the top of their lungs–even though this act represents a serious misunderstanding of the practice of sustaining. Or, in this case, they create music videos where they deface religious icons that are important to many. 
I wish they would reach out to the many caring bishops that would sit with them and help them understand, resolve, or overcome their issues. Obviously, there are bishops out there that–for unfortunate reasons–may be unapproachable. In my experience though, the vast majority of these leaders are willing and desperate to help. 
To sum up my thoughts: my heart aches for them, and I wish they would use the mechanisms in place to get the help they need. Those mechanisms do exist, but they don’t appear in the forms we are used to in a democratic society. They aren’t done on the street corners or in a crowded forum; instead, like the act of rescuing a lost sheep, they are done on an individual basis.
Kerry's response to TK's comment:
Non-member here, with a life-long fascination with the church and years of experience reading about and talking to those who leave. I occupy a strange middle ground in this debate, and as such I think I can explain the behavior of those departing in a way that makes sense to you. 
I’m sure your experience with leavers is honestly represented here, but bear in mind that nobody really knows another person’s story. Those people who refused to talk to the Bishop were almost certainly carrying trauma you didn’t see. In virtually all cases, leaving the church is an incredibly painful and lonely experience. It is not a decision that people undertake lightly, or simply because they are offended. Imagine what it would take for you to lose your faith, and you have some idea what these people are up against. They don’t want to lose their faith. Very often it is an internal battle that is fought and lost over a period of months or years. 
The thing that makes this battle so incredibly painful is the fact that usually it cannot be shared with anyone. Raising serious doubts and concerns, unless it’s done with extreme caution, will in most cases provoke angry and frightened reactions. Believers will see it as a threat to their reality, and they will react defensively. In order to maintain the peace and protect those they love from pain, doubters tend to carry their doubts alone. They hide the burden until they cannot hide it any longer, and usually at that point they leave. This decision can seem sudden and rash to those around them, but it isn’t, it is simply the visible culmination of an invisible struggle. 
Usually a lea[v]er’s friends and family will counsel them to pray, read scripture, talk to the Bishop, as though the leaver hadn’t tried all these things repeatedly and found them to be ineffective. It hurts to hear these suggestions, because it reminds the leaver that their friends do not understand their struggle and cannot help them. Some people will not meet with a Bishop at any point during their deconversion, but this is rare, and usually happens because the leaver understands their own problems well enough to know that the Bishop has no answers for them. It’s not that Bishops are not caring and eager to help; of course they are. It is that solutions simply do not exist. Again, imagine what it would take to destroy your faith and you will understand why a meeting with the Bishop is not going to change anything. 
You say that you have empathy for those who leave, and I believe you. But bear in mind that even kind intentions, when improperly expressed, can cause damage. When you speak to someone who is on their way out, please give them enough credit to assume they have already prayed and asked for help. Approach them with an attitude of trying to understand them, rather than trying to fix them. Whether they ultimately choose to leave or stay, their journey and yours will be better if you treat one another with respect and kindness.
The bold emphasis is mine.

I don't have much to say about it other than it really summed up my experience clearly and spoke to me. Thank you, Kerry, whoever you are.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Where is the LDS church headed?

I had been thinking recently about why I felt anxious and abused at LDS church Sunday School and Priesthood quorum lessons. I mean, just thinking about going makes my chest feel tight and my heart rate rise. I think that this is extremely odd since I don't react to the prospect of any other meeting that way. I've been asking myself what the issue is there.

Then recently, D. Todd Christofferson made a post on Facebook that I think allowed me to deconstruct what is going on. Here is the post:
I’m not sure what is behind the increasing attacks upon the Prophet Joseph Smith in our current time, but one thing is for sure: it is increasing. I want to declare my witness of this great prophet. 
In his youth, this pure-hearted boy came to know Jesus Christ. He not only knew of Him, but he knew Him. There were more than one or two occasions when he communed with Jehovah. He could stand as one who knew and bore witness of the identity of Jesus Christ. He heard from the mouth of God Himself that Jesus was His Son. He never faltered in that witness. 
There is no reasonable explanation for the existence of the Book of Mormon other than what the Prophet said—that he was given the power to translate it. No human in his condition could have originated the book. 
Joseph Smith never claimed to be perfect, and he told the Saints that, but he fulfilled his mission. He fulfilled his commission. He did what God ordained him and asked him to do. 
He now stands with the Savior having given a good report. May we recognize the debt of gratitude we owe him and thank our Heavenly Father for this obedient prophet who restored the gospel of Christ. (D. Todd Christopherson Facebook Post)
This elicits the same feelings I get in Sunday School lessons. Why? I think the answer is simply that this post is a denial of my reality. It is a subtle form of gaslighting. This post basically says that there is no possible valid reason to feel angry at Joseph Smith.

I grew up viewing Joseph Smith as a hero. He was a major role model for me. As the church portrayed him, he was a paragon of honesty, humility, and love for his wife, Emma. It was kind of shocking to find out that Joseph Smith was arrested because he ordered a printing press destroyed that was exposing his secret practice of polygamy (I always assumed it was trumped-up charges, did I assume that or was that taught to me?), or that he boasted in his May 26, 1844 sermon that he had accomplished things that Jesus never had, or that he chose to repeat marriage ceremonies with some of his polygamous wives to avoid telling Emma that he had already married them, or many other things, so on and so forth, etc. etc. etc.

I made the following comment when I initially read D. Todd Christofferson's post, which has since been deleted by him (or whoever manages his Facebook account):
Finding out about Joseph marrying teen orphan foster daughters and other men's wives after years of faithful service sure did not help my faith. Maybe if church leaders (cough cough) portrayed Joseph a little more realistically in conference talks there wouldn't be so many who feel so betrayed by the facts.
Obviously I was being quite snarky, but there is real pain behind that snark. When I began to research church history in earnest, I desperately desired understanding and validation of my concerns. One of the most painful moments in my life was visiting with my bishop and having him vehemently deny that Joseph Smith ever practiced polygamy and then proceed to ask me if I was cheating on my wife (because the only reason one could possibly have concerns about Joseph Smith is if you were an adulterer?!?!). Thankfully, other LDS members were much less judgmental, but it was hard to take that from my bishop. It hurt a lot. And it hurt more because I had no material from higher church authorities with which to enlighten him. No conference talks or other resources that would discuss Joseph's marrying of Orson Hyde's wife, teen orphan foster daughters, polygamy denials, etc. etc. etc. The church had plainly avoided these difficult subjects for quite some time, so my anger isn't just at Joseph, but in fact it is primarily directed toward the people who taught me a whitewashed version of Joseph, people like D. Todd Christofferson.

Back to Elder Christofferson's Facebook post, several days after the post was made, the following comment was the top comment with almost 1200 'likes'. The next highest comment had less than 500:
I used to have a testimony of Joseph Smith. But my testimony was based on the narrative that I learned while growing up in the church as well as what the church taught up until it released the essays on the church's web site. I was shocked and saddened to learn that my testimony was based on lies. I think that's a big factor in a lot of people's disdain for Joseph Smith. The translation wasn't what I thought it had been. The first vision wasn't what I thought it had been. The Book of Abraham wasn't what I thought it had been. And Joseph Smith's relationship with Emma wasn't anywhere near what I thought it had been. 
So I am leaving my comment here not to diss anyone, but to share why many people have changed their opinion about Joseph Smith and have lost their testimony of him. I don't wish to lead anyone astray, but I want to provide insight.

If you know all of these horrible issues and still have a testimony of him, then that is your choice and your belief, and I respect that. But there are many of us who can no longer believe and have gone through a traumatic faith transition. Please respect those of us who now believe differently. Thank you.
This comment (which I felt was quite respectful) was deleted the same day that my comment was deleted, and these deletions go right to the heart of why I felt abused all my life at church.

When I go to church, I feel deleted. It is not a place where I can share myself, and it is that way by design. The lessons go out of their way to avoid covering the subjects that are big concerns for me and make it clear that my perspective is invalid. Basically, they deny my reality, which is exactly what Elder Christofferson did when he deleted my and many other comments on Facebook. These are the kinds of games that abusers play. Someone with truth on their side need not do this.

I wish I could ask Elder Christofferson directly where the church is headed and get an honest answer. Not that it matters much but I am curious. Is the church going to eventually acknowledge the elephant in the room that is the historical record or are we going to keep pretending that we can't possibly imagine how anyone could have any serious concerns about anything Joseph Smith ever did? Are they going to limit the discussion of Joseph's foibles to "sometimes he played with kids" or are we going to wrestle with the theological implications of Joseph's polyandry (marrying other men's wives) and the like?

Friday, December 4, 2015

When Epistemology and Doublethink Collide

Let me define epistemology and doublethink to start out so that we are sure to be on the same page with these words.

Epistemology is just the study of how we gain knowledge. It answers questions like, what are good methods of learning and how sure can we be that we are right?

'Doublethink' is a term coined by George Orwell in his book 1984 and simply refers to believing two contradictory things at the same time. It is something we find a lot in high-commitment ideologies (like in the fictional world in that book) but we find it elsewhere as well.

Now the reason I am writing this article today is that I grew up Mormon and lately I have been thinking of how my views on the subject of epistemology have changed since I left that church. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that doublethink lay at the foundation of my methods of determining truth in that earlier phase of my life.

Anyone who has spent very much time in or around the LDS church knows that Epistemology in the LDS faith is centered on the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is described as mostly speaking to us through our feelings (it is acknowledged that the Holy Ghost can speak directly to a person with audible words or even appear before them but stories of this actually happening are very rare). The Holy Ghost is stated to be the best method to gain knowledge. Here are a couple of quotes to back this up:

In addition, the gift of the Holy Ghost is available as a sure guide, as the voice of conscience, and as a moral compass. This guiding compass is personal to each of us. It is unerring. It is unfailing. (James E. Faust, The Gift of the Holy Ghost - A Sure Compass, April 1989)
[The Holy Ghost's] communication to our spirit carries far more certainty than any communication we can receive through our natural senses. (LDS.org Gospel Topics, The Holy Ghost)

Mormons are told to pray to know if the Book of Mormon is true (implying that the events recounted in it actually, literally occurred). The response of the Holy Ghost to this question is supposed to imply that the entire belief system is correct and any factual assertions that the leaders make are also correct. All of this is proven correct by feelings given to you by the Holy Ghost. So it is easy to see that the reliability of this method is of the utmost importance.

And this is why it was always so concerning to me when I heard church leaders address the issue that crops up when someone has an experience where they feel that the Holy Ghost tells them something that contradicts what the church teaches. It is usually handled by explaining that the experience didn't come from the Holy Ghost, but from some counterfeit:
Be ever on guard lest you be deceived by inspiration from an unworthy source. You can be given false spiritual messages. There are counterfeit spirits just as there are counterfeit angels. (See Moro. 7:17.) Be careful lest you be deceived, for the devil may come disguised as an angel of light. 
The spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked that is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual. We occasionally find people who receive what they assume to be spiritual promptings from God, when those promptings are either centered in the emotions or are from the adversary. (Boyd K. Packer, The Candle of the Lord, 25 June 1982)
This opens a huge can of worms for me. Here is where the doublethink lies. You cannot claim that a method for learning truth can easily give convincing false results (whether by Satan or by self-delusion) and also claim this is a high-reliability method for determining truth. Those two claims are mutually exclusive.

And besides this, the same feeling can be subject to dramatically different interpretations depending on the person who interprets it. I have seen people claim, upon learning some of the stranger details of the origins of LDS polygamy, that the bad feelings that they felt were proof that the things they were learning were not true. I have also seen people claim to believe that similar bad feelings were sent by the Holy Ghost to tell them that the things that early church leaders did were wrong. Now, my personal opinion at this point in time is that I felt bad learning those things simply because it doesn't feel good to learn unflattering things about people you hold in high regard. It didn't feel good to me to learn about Bill Cosby, either, but I hope you get my point that a simple feeling is easy to interpret many different ways.

What got me thinking about all of this was looking into the methods that other religions (which make factual truth claims that contradict each other) use to determine if their beliefs are true, a point that is well-illustrated in the video below.



Notice anything? They are all suspiciously similar. The "testimony meeting" format of the young polygamist girl's profession of knowledge of her beliefs will seem especially familiar to others who are or were LDS. It seems that the Holy Ghost told her things that contradict what it has told to people in the LDS church, and many other churches. Or maybe she just didn't interpret the feeling correctly. Or maybe she was tricked by Satan or her own feelings. Or possibly something else that I can't think of. It's not perfectly clear and straightforward by any means, if this is indeed the way God intended to tell us the most important things in life.

Since leaving the LDS belief system, I have had people ask me questions like, "What about your spiritual experiences? How can you cast them aside?" I have also had people tell me that, "Deep down I know the LDS church is true."

First, I would say that I could never, even as a full believer, state my beliefs with as much surety as the Muslims or the Heaven's Gate followers in the video above. I'm just not the type of person that has had strong experiences of this nature and this doesn't worry me. I have strong experiences of awe and wonder, but I just don't think that this is telling me anything about objective truth.

Second, to those who tell me that I know the LDS church is true, I would just say no. No I don't. In the bottom of my heart I really, really don't.

While I don't expect this to convince anyone to change their mind about they way they view the world with this article, I hope people are able to see why it is hard for me to accept the Holy Ghost or feelings as a reliable way to determine objective, factual truth and why I am bothered by the doublethink that I think is involved.

Thanks for reading. As always, your comments and thoughts are appreciated even if you don't agree with me.