Tuesday, December 26, 2017

On the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture

Summary: Mormons resist theology, thinking it to be the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.  Instead, we ought to realize that the phrase originated in response to “orthodoxy”, and that it is orthodox dogma, not theology, that is to be avoided.  Indeed, theology gives us the tools to have dialogue about the nature of our spiritual experience, and helps us build loving communities of faith.


In our temple creation narrative, we have Satan being asked what religion he teaches.  He says he teaches the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.  In response, Adam rejects Satan’s teachings, looking for messengers from his Father in Heaven to teach him.

I see merit in this dialogue.  I grew up really delving deeply into philosophy and theology, not as a scholar, mind you, but more as a dilettante – a passionate hobbyist on understanding all the complexities of theology. 

Yet no amount of philosophy, no amount of analysis, could prepare me for life.  When my faith crisis came upon me years ago, my intellect could not save me from my self-destructive behaviors. 

Then, at some point in this Journey, I came to realize a relationship with a presence I have come to call Christ.  When I came to know this Presence, anything I could possibly know *about* god was complete nonsense. 

But to explain this presence, to understand what it means, when I go to church each Sunday and hear a correlated doctrine *about* god and all else, I am left to wonder why we must reject philosophical inquiry, why we must accept the correlated doctrine without question, when our personal experience – our truth – is so different.

Are we forbidden from exploring what our experience means?  Is talking about the nature of god so “sacred” that we must simply keep to the script, or not talk at all about it?

Eugene England grappled with the idea of who god is.  As he explored how god could once have been man and is now god, he pondered what this might mean.  Is god “progressing” he asked.  After all, it would seem that we are on a path of “eternal progression”, so when is it that we “arrive” at perfection?

When Eugene England opened up a theological discussion at BYU as to whether God progresses, Bruce R McConkie went on the warpath against him, declaring the notion the first of seven great heresies, and commanded England to echo what McConkie taught or remain silent.

In like manner, Orson Pratt was shut down by Brigham Young when Pratt explored the nature of God.

Yet here is the problem: Whether we like it or not, the notion of who or what god is, and how we come to believe it, is the work of theology.  And because “theology” is a kind of philosophical inquiry into the nature of god and our existence, LDS are doubly forbidden from exploring this line of thinking: both from the dogmatic statements by our leaders as well as our temple narrative.

But are we really forbidden? 

In 1990, the temple narrative was simplified, removing from it some elements that really were quite offensive to many.  While we cannot really talk about all parts that were removed, we can actually talk about the creation, garden, and telestial kingdom narrative – the interactions between God, Jesus, Adam, Eve, the Apostles, and Satan.

There was one more character in the pre-1990 account – a sectarian minister who was employed by Satan to teach religion.  While this was pretty offensive toward other religions – the minister was clothed in typical clerical garb – the narrative is important, because it sets the context of what is meant by condemning the “philosophies of men, mingled with scripture”.   Satan conducts an interview with the minister:

Satan asks, “Do you preach the orthodox religion?”

The preacher responds, “Yes, that is what I preach”.

Then, the preacher teaches the creedal, orthodox definition of god to Adam.  Although it is a bit of a caricature of orthodox belief, it is accurate enough to demonstrate how the orthodox definition of god is contradictory and confusing to most people. 

Adam’s answer is illuminating: “To me it is a mass of confusion”.

Then the preacher teaches Adam the orthodox definition of hell – one nearly verbatim from the beliefs of hell outlined in the Book of Mormon, to which Adam responds “I believe in no such place.”

All of the above dialogue was removed from the temple endowment in 1990.  But what remains in the endowment is the dialogue between the Apostles and Satan.  Satan is asked, “What is being taught?”, and Satan responds, “The philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.”

As I opened this post, I note that there is merit to this dialogue.  But the merit is significantly lessened when we lose the context of what the expression actually meant.  The religion being taught was *orthodoxy*: the religion based upon creeds and dogmas that had to be accepted without question in order to be “right thinking”/”orthodox” in one’s beliefs.

Properly understood, “philosophies of men” are not the problem here.  It is when a religion is based upon orthodoxy: the established dogmas and creeds derived from the “philosophies of men mingled with scripture”. 

So how is Orthodoxy the “Philosophies of Men, Mingled with Scripture”?

When we explore the history of Christian Doctrine – and the works of Jaroslav Pelikan are essential to understanding this, we realize that as the Christian church grew, it changed, it became institutionalized, and the idea of personal revelation needed to be set aside in order to create a consistent doctrine. 

The Council of Nicaea is illustrative. Hundreds of Bishops gathered together by request of Emperor Constantine, in order to systematize Christian doctrine so that it could be used to govern the empire.  There were too many controversies in Christian doctrine – too many schools of thought, and there needed to be order. 

The deepest controversy was on the nature of God, and how Jesus was both God and man. 

The reality is that no-one knew.  They were all administrators – politically connected men who were well established in Church leadership.  Many were smart, inspired, and paragons of thought and Christian practice.  Both Eusebius, the great church historian, as well as Nikolaos of Myra (St. Nick) were there.  They were good people earnestly striving to grapple with the most essential doctrine of the Christian religion: How can two persons, God the Father and Jesus Christ, be One God?

Much as they tried, they could not find an answer to this in scripture.  So they turned to the philosophies of men, or specifically, the prevailing Greek philosophy of the time: Neoplatonism.  In Plato, the essence of God is the Form of the Good – a concept outside of creation.  This essence is One, or in Greek, “homoousion” – “Single Essence” or “Singe Being”.  Thus, the Nicene Creed introduced that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were three persons who shared one “homoousion” – One god in three persons.

And from that point going forward, Neoplatonic philosophy more or less formed the ideas around what the orthodox god is in essence:  Neoplatonism says the Form of the Good is incomprehensible, so thus, God is incomprehensible.  Neoplatonism says that the form of the good is outside of creation, thus god is outside of creation.  Omnipotence, omniscience, all the extremes of perfection and unchanging nature come from these same philosophies.  Then, scriptures are cherry picked to support the philosophies of men.  And voila!  Orthodoxy is born.

Then, around 1820, a fourteen or fifteen year old farm boy has a personal experience with god. In this vision, the young man learns that the orthodoxy of the creeds was an abomination to God, that those who profess such creeds are corrupted thereby, and they “teach for doctrine the commandments of men”.

These are strong indictments against orthodoxy.  Indeed, the beauty of the Restoration was the undoing of orthodoxy, opening up the singular idea that man could have a personal relationship with god and receive revelation.  In contrast, orthodoxy demands that if mankind receives revelation, it can only confirm that which has already been revealed – there is no concept of “line upon line, precept upon precept”, for in orthodoxy, we seek to preserve what was, rather than embrace what might be.

For many years, the LDS church eschewed orthodoxy.  There were generations of LDS amateur theologians, whether Orson Pratt, BH Roberts, John A Widtsoe, James E Talmage, OC Tanner, Sterling McMurrin, and Eugene England.  Yet try as they might, another camp exists within the Church leadership, taking their lead from Joseph Fielding Smith, to shut down any kind of theology that doesn’t conform to orthodoxy.  Smith’s son-in-law Bruce R McConkie wrote Mormon Doctrine, a catechism for Mormon orthodoxy, in parallel with Harold B Lee and Boyd K Packer’s development and enforcement of the Priesthood Correlation. 

And while LDS correlated beliefs do include Mormon-specific ideas, they also are meant to be amenable to the prevailing Christian definitions of god – the precise same ones that came from “the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.” 

To Correlated Mormons, God the Father is an unchanging being from everlasting to everlasting, who has always been God, yet was once man like us.  God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good, yet allows evil (including random evil such as tsunami) because he does not intervene in free will.  God is present everywhere, but is a body of flesh and bones and cannot dwell in our hearts (an old sectarian notion). 

In other words, LDS have taken the creedal definition of god: unchangeable and omni-whatever, and added to it that God was once a mortal man and is corporeal.  We have taken an already internally inconsistent and logically impossible dogma and done the miraculous: we have made it worse.

I have been dragged into my bishop’s office over my public statement: “In the beginning man created God in his own image.  In the image of man created he Him.  Father and Son created he Them.”  Yet I stand by my statement, because I was talking about orthodoxy: the creedal definitions of god, which I reject.  The philosophies of men, mingled with scripture, do not make for good doctrine.  It’s about how we *define* god, and whether we are free to have our own experience with god.

To me, this is the core idea of Mormonism: God lives and reveals him and her self to us personally.  And yes, this may stimulate us to think about theology, because the experience of god essentially calls into question any orthodoxy that defines god in defiance to personal witness.

So what does this mean to the everyday Mormon experience?

Rather than shunning theology as the “philosophies of men, mingled with scripture”, I believe we ought to embrace theology as a way to understand the personal experience with god that we all have in our own Way and in our own time.  Theology gives us the tools to discuss our experience with others, and to better understand our own relationship with god. 

Let’s take, for example, our testimony meetings.  The idea of a “pure testimony” is one which makes five claims:

1. I know that God is our Heavenly Father and He loves us.

2. I know that His Son, Jesus Christ, is our Savior and Redeemer.

3. I know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. He restored the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth and translated the Book of Mormon by the power of God.

4. I know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s Church on the earth today.

5. I know that this Church is led by a living prophet who receives revelation.

For all intents and purposes, this testimony is fully correlated.  It is a creed, although instead of “I believe” (“credo” in latin), we say “I know” – asserting a certainty in place of faith/belief.  From a theological point of view, this testimony is fraught with serious problems.  There is no epistemological justification for saying “I know” such claims other than one’s personal feelings.  And a witness or testimony should not focus on the claim but rather, the observation.

A testimony is a personal witness, what I have observed to be true.  If I am to witness that God is my heavenly father, and that he loves me, it might be good to express why I feel that way.  How is the idea of god as “heavenly father” relevant to me?  In what way does he love me?  My experience with this is relevant, not my claim.  If I believe that God loves me, I have witnessed that love by some experience, and to bear witness is to explain the experience, not the certainty claim.

Theology gives us the tools of understanding our relationship with god in a common, shareable language.  To be sure, the personal relationship with god transcends any theological construct – if I have experienced god or spirit in some way, it’s not because I have the right theology.  At it’s core, the personal experience is ineffable.  That said, we share our experiences in dialogue, so how I *explain* my experience, how I dialogue with others, has everything to do with theology. 

Theology gives us a framework for discussing who god is (and is not) and who we are.  This is the discipline of Ontology: the study of the nature of being.  Theology also helps us properly define how we come to believe things.  This is “Epistemology”: the study of the nature of belief (literally, “pistis” in greek is “Faith”).  When we realize that epistemology and ontology are the First Principles of any theology, then, we can equate that to something more understandable to Mormons. 

In Mormonism, the First Principle is “Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ”.  This is a theological construct.  It is the idea that “faith” is our epistemology, and Jesus Christ is our ontology.  We must not simply throw off this First Principle as “I know Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer”.  While I accept this as what we profess, we need to go deeper. 

First, we must realize that faith is “not knowing”.  Faith is a life-long process and relationship with truth.  We ever realize we don’t know, and then in that realization, we hope for things which are not seen, which are true.  Faith is the basis of our lives, as we seek to live with uncertainties, yet act with charity and love in faithfulness. 

And as we suggest who Jesus Christ is as Savior and Redeemer, we must go further, deeper, probe what it truly means to follow Christ, to become One with Christ.  We realize, theologically, that Jesus Christ repeatedly equated himself with YHWH – the I AM.  The Identity of Christ – the very nature of his being, and his being God is worthy of the deepest contemplation.  If we are to be like him, if we are to follow him, we must come to an understanding of what that means to us, to me personally. 

And Jesus prayed that we might be One with Him in exactly the same way he is One with God.  Such an idea has profound theological implications, both for ourselves, as well as for the nature of God.  When we say, As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become, we are engaging in the deepest theology of all.

If God is our *ultimate concern*, then we must seek with all of our heart, might, mind and strength to follow god, to embrace god, to understand god, and all we can do to know god as a personal experience.  This need not be formal theology, but it is most definitely theology. 

And in realizing the importance of this quest, when we repeat the Shema, “Hear Oh Israel, I AM our gods, I AM One”, we are invoking the singular idea that not only is God One, but we are also One in God as we struggle in our theological quest.

Friday, August 18, 2017

On Special Witnesses of Christ

I have heard, so often, that Apostles are "Special Witnesses" of Jesus Christ.   Somehow, we are to look to these individuals as having a special relationship with Christ in a way that the rest of us don't. Many Mormons believe that this means each of the Apostles have seen the Savior in the flesh.

Yet, this claim is seriously flawed for many reasons.

In reading Spencer W. Kimball's autobiography, he had no such experience.  Instead, as he was called to be an Apostle, he struggled mightily with the idea that he had to be a special witness, but in his life, he had no such witness in his mind.  As he walked the mountains to contemplate this, he came to a feeling of peace, that his witness is more that peace.

In like manner, Harold B Lee explained his experience in a mission conference in Great Britain:
"Much of what is said is too sacred to repeat. But I may say that my first responsibility is to bear witness of the divinity of the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is a humbling trust. A member of the Twelve is a special witness. My own witness came to me when I was assigned to give the talk on the Easter following the conference when I was sustained as a member of the Twelve. As I received the assignment, I was enjoined, ‘Now you understand that you are now to be a special witness of that great event, meaning the resurrection of the Lord.’ With that in mind, I closeted myself in one of the rooms of the Church office building. I read the Gospels carefully, particularly concerning the last days of the Master’s life. I read of his crucifixion, his resurrection, and then his return for forty fays following his resurrection, when he appeared to his disciples. Then I went to Nephi [in the Book of Mormon] and read about his appearance to the Nephites. As I read the story, I became aware that something was happening to me. It was not just the story I was reading. It seemed as though I was seeing. Those people were more real to me than I had ever known them before. I wondered if this was the more sure word of prophesy that I was experiencing. …
“So I come to you with a witness as sure as was the Apostle Paul’s. Perhaps in the manner which the Apostle Paul received his. A witness more perfect than sight is the witness which the Holy Ghost bears to one’s soul so that he knows these things are true. I witness to you tonight with all my soul.”
I think most of us have had similar witnesses to what Harold B Lee describes.  Most of us, as well, have felt the same peace that Spencer W Kimball had.   One cannot read St Ignatius' spiritual exercises, or the experiences of Emmanual Swedenborg, or any number of other great spiritual people throughout time and not come away with the impression that there are common threads in the varieties of religious experience, as William James so effectively notes. What, then, does it mean, then, to be "Special Witnesses" as Apostles are asked to do?  How is the apostolic experience any different than what we spiritually receive as we engage with the divine?

Dallin Oaks clears this up in describing that the role of Apostle as "Special Witness" refers not to a "Witness of Jesus Christ", but rather, a "Special Witness of the NAME of Jesus Christ".
"The first answer to this question is that modern apostles are called to be witnesses of the “name” of Christ in all the world (D&C 107:23). This is not to witness of a personal manifestation. To witness of the “name” is to witness of the plan, the work, or mission, such as the atonement, and the authority or priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ, which apostle who holds the keys is uniquely responsible to do. Of course apostles are also witnesses of Christ, just like all members of the Church who have the gift of the Holy Ghost. This is because the mission of the Holy Ghost is to witness of the Father and the Son."
Dallin Oaks, Boise Conference, June 15, 2015
Oaks is essentially equating "Name" with "Authority". To do something in someone's "name" is to do so with their authority. Oaks is acknowledging a core doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: that the Apostles and First Presidency are "Prophets, Seers, and Revelators", uniquely embued with the responsibilty to hold all priesthood KEYS of AUTHORITY. Thus, what makes an Apostle a "Special Witness", above all the rest of us who are "merely" witnesses of Christ, is not the extent of our personal encounter with Christ, but rather, whether we have KEYS of AUTHORITY.

I wonder. I really wonder if this is what it means to be a Witness.

Alma in Mosiah 18 calls us to be willing to be witnesses of God at all times, in all things, and in all places we may be. I think we as LDS think this means that we, as Members, are to do missionary work all the time. But when we include the term "in all things", how does that in any way mean "do missionary work"? Are we supposed to be converting things?

Is it possible, that to be a "witness" means more than bearing testimony. After all, in order to testify in court, we need to actually *observe* something. So to "witness" or to "be a witness", means that we are there when IT happens, whatever IT may be, and we have paid attention to IT by becoming mindful of all the facts around IT. And what is "IT" in this case? God. Not resoration, not authority, not Church, not book of Mormon. We are to witness god...at all times, in all things, and in all places we may be.

This is a call to deep mindfulness. Our scriptures are full of allusions to this mindfulness:
"The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things."
D&C 88:13
"Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms (referring to natural phenomena), that ye may understand? Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power."
D&C 88:46-47
"And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me."
Moses 6:63
When Elder Lee expressed that these experiences are too sacred to repeat, I accept his statement to a point. However, William James expresses that the spiritual experience -- either epiphany or theophany -- is characterized by being "ineffable" -- something that cannot be accurately described. Joseph Smith expressed the singular idea that to "see the face of the lord" does not have to mean a literal event. Note, above, that in D&C 88:47, we have "seen god moving in majesty and power" when we observe the workings of nature; and I would add that this would have to mean a *mindful* observation of nature.

In addition, he expresses the actual experience of seeing the face of the lord:
"And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things. Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will."
D&C 88:67-68
This lays out that the precursor to "seeing the face" is to have your "eye" single to the glory of god, and your whole body will be filled with light. In the Bhagavad Gita, this concept is "Buddhiyogad" - Enlightened Unity: it is the basis of mindfulness, and the core of the non-dual, mystical experience: we become One with all that is--subject and object become indistinguishable.

Once cannot describe the mystical experience of nondualism, of divine unity using words of dualism. This is why the spiritual/mystical experience is ineffable.

And I believe that this experience is accessible to many, if we but come to realize it. The experience of the Buddha is not that enlightenment is a far-off attainment, but rather, an enfolding into the here and now and a deep realization that we are *within* the spiritual experience in the eternal now. The problem is that our words, our dualistic descriptions of personal visions, visitations, and angelic experiences take on a mythic character, that once literalized, makes the spiritual experience unobtainable.

When I was a missionary, my Mission President was ordained to the First Quorum of Seventy, when this was re-organized in 1975. Along with it, he received his second anointing, although he didn't say that at the time. What he did preach, after going to that October 1975 conference, was that he had his calling and election made sure, and that we all ought to seek to have our calling and election made sure.

This motivated me to seek the same for myself. I studied the scriptures endlessly, and came to the conclusion that having one's calling and election made sure was that the Lord had manifest himself "face to face" and that by that revelation, one knew that one was sealed up to eternal life. This became my obsession and quest for years, for I felt all the way through my life most unworthy and needed that confirmation.

In time, and after my initial faith crisis, I had multiple experiences where I came to know that the Lord loved me and had fully forgiven me my sins. I felt a deepening relationship as I developed wordless prayer in connecting with God.

Then, one night in around 1990, I awoke to a brilliant experience. I could use the term "light", but it would not quite be adequate. I was enfused in every part of my soul, and connected with a Presence so real, so tangible -- to this day I cannot deny this Presence. And this Presence made it clear that THIS is what it meant to "see the face of god", and that my calling and election -- whatever that meant -- was sure.

Within months from this experience, I found out what the church REALLY meant when it said "calling and election made sure" -- that you had received, by virtue of your connection to the LDS elite, the second anointing. It had NOTHING to do with spiritual experience, nor actually seeing the face of god or Christ.

Needless to say, having not received the Second Anointing, and at that point being such a renegade that I would probably never be so anointed and chosen, that my perspective on the Church radically changed. The Second Anointing, to me, along with the entire "Special Witnesses of the Name of Christ" stuff concretely demonstrated that such Church concepts are entirely man-made, and personally destructive. In effect, most members will work their entire lives to try to feel worthy, yet only a very small elite are actually given the promised blessings. It's the primary deal-breaker for me.

So, yes, I know, down to my bones, that it is possible to be a Witness of Christ. And in having my experiences, I also witness that such witness is available to all, and should NEVER be considered a "special witness of the name of Christ" as a way to hold authority over and enslave others, by dangling a carrot of promised blessings that will never be achieved for 99.99% of members in this life.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Three Simple Questions

I think there are three deceptively simply questions in life:

  1. Who am I?
  2. How do I know?
  3. What am I supposed to do about it?

I think Mormonism has a unique take on the answers to these questions. My believing self answers these questions like this:

  1. Who am I?  I am a child of God.
  2. How do I know?  Because the key of knowledge has been restored through prophets who cannot lead us astray.
  3. What am I supposed to do about it?  Follow the prophet.  see (2).

Yet these three questions are much larger in scope than the simple LDS reflexive answers can provide.  As our faith matures, we realize the need for greater clarity:

1. Who am I?

By itself, our simplified Mormon identity as Children of God gives us no sense of unique identity --
all humans on this earth are equally children of God.  So what does it really mean? What is the nature of being co-eternal with god as his spirit-intelligence children?  What is the nature of God's being, if he was once like us and we are to become like him?  Where is Heavenly Mother in all this?  Is gender and our family identity persistent in both directions?

The Who am I question points us to a "First Principle" in both the metaphysical discipline of philosophy as well as religion:
Ontology: What is the nature of being?  
Mormonism does offer a unique ontology, although poorly explained in the correlated materials.  This ontology is best expressed in Lorenzo Snow's couplet, "As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become".  We are divine beings on a divine journey.  Although Joseph and Brigham speculated on what this means - and often created confusion as a result -- we have a divine nature, origin, and destiny.

This fundamentally must change how we view others.  "God" is not some being beyond being, but rather, "God" is exalted humanity.  We ought to really explore how that affects our daily walk.  When we embrace who Jesus Christ truly is -- as both god and man, and yet, one of us and our Friend, then we must embrace that Jesus, the I AM, is the key to life itself.

Once we realize the Christ, this concept of being is not just about who am I, but also, who are you, who is Christ, and how do we connect to each other in love.  Life is about this connection.  Christ's first, second, greatest, last, and new commandment was to love one another as he loves us. This is what it means to have life in abundance.

2. How do I know?

When we look in detail at prophetic answers, not only is there insufficient knowledge within the words of the prophets, but we observe how inconsistent they are from the beginning. Prophets today are not prophetic, but rather, in the position of authority -- the only ones authorized to pronounce doctrine, yet they are neither scholars, scientists, nor particularly imbued with prophetic visions.  Thus, our reliance on their words as trumping science and independent investigation seems antithetical toward truth-seeking.

The "How do I know" question points us to another "First Principle" in both metaphysics as well as the gospel:
Epistemology: What is the nature of knowledge?
Mormonism offers five important epistemological concepts:

  1. Truth is knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come. 
  2. All truth is circumscribed into one great whole.  That is to say that science as knowledge of the material/physical world, and religion as a kind of faith knowledge need not be opposed, but in fact, should harmonize -- not by relegating science to a second seat, but rather, by using the right tools for the right purpose.
  3. While eternal truth may be unchanging and without question, mankind's understanding of such truths is limited to our ability to understand.  We receive revelation through our minds and hearts in the language of our understanding.  
  4. We learn truth line upon line, precept upon precept, thus our understanding of truths must be both progressive and evolutionary.
  5. We learn through our own experience and not by dogma and creed.  Alma 32 teaches an epistemic approach that allows us to work in faith to gain knowledge by experimentation.  

In our faith, we ought never to be afraid of the truth, nor in any way cover up inconvenient facts of our past and doctrine because they are not "faith promoting".  According to Alma, faith is not knowledge, but rather, hope in something that is true -- or at least "not false".  To believe something that is false in not faith, but rather deception, and ultimately will cause faith crisis.  As disciples of a God of Truth, we must be rigorously honest in our approach to learning truth.

3. What am I to do?

Mormon authority requires absolute, unquestioning obedience and uncompromising loyalty to the brethren and church in all things.  (see GBH: "Loyalty" 2003).  The basic principle is (1) the Love of God is the first and greatest commandment, (2) If we love god we keep his commandments, and (3) his commandments are expressed through the voice of his anointed servants -- the prophets, seers, and revelators.  All of Mormonism, today, can be reduced this simple principle: you love god by obeying the brethren with exactness.

Yet this kind of obedience does not save us, does not develop us, but rather destroys us by virtue of making us vulnerable to despotism and demagoguery.  This is not the Plan of God, but rather, the one who required absolute obedience. We really need a much better way to sort out what we are to do.

The "What am I to do" question leads us to a third "First Principle" in both metaphysics as well as the gospel:
Ethics: How are we to act?
Our religion has many ethical and moral standards, yet they are most often focused on separating our behavior from others in the world.  We do not have a strong, simple moral ethic that guides our living, other than "obedience" to the dictates of our Church leaders. We have created a kind of Mosaic/Rabbinical/Talmudic law unto ourselves.

Yet Christ had a much simpler concept: to love one another as he loves us.  And how does he love us?
 he forgives, he is our friend, he is unconditional in his love.  Others have said as much: Confucius, Hillel, and almost every ethical system in the world: "That which we find hateful when done to us, we should not do to others."  Or positively said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Jesus, and Hillel, correctly claimed that this simple principle is the basis of all the law and the prophets. It ought to be the basis of how we act, and how we thoughtfully hearken to those who sit in Moses' prophetic seat.

Our Mormon ethic clarifies this kind of love in a way we ought to take very seriously: We are to lift one another's burdens, that they may be light, to mourn with those who mourn, and to comfort those who stand in need of comfort.  We witness in Mormonism of a godly love when we serve without reservation our communities.  I have seen this miracle of Mormon service -- we can make a difference by being Mormon in the Way Alma taught at the Waters of Mormon.


Who am I?
How do I know?
What am I to do about it?

Jesus answers our questions by saying, "I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life".

Who am I?  I AM, and in being One with Christ, I have Life in abundance.

How do I know?  Because I am here to learn through my own experience -- I will make mistakes, but as I test, doubt, and discover, the truth will become clear to our minds through objective, empirical experiments, and to our hearts, through our hope, faith, and love.

What am I to do about it?  As the first disciples called themselves "Followers of the Way", we follow not men and their opinions, but rather, Christ in his words -- the basis of all ethical systems: to love one another as he loves us.

How Man Creates God in his Own Image

"In the beginning, man created god in his own image, in the image of man, created he him.  Father and Son, created he them."
(Genesis 1:27, "translated" by my seer stone).

If I were to quote this in a church meeting, or with any Christian, Muslim, or Jew, I might as well be (seer) stoned indeed, either literally, figuratively, or otherwise.

Such blasphemy. Or is it?

Does the idea really seem strange that mankind created a definition of god that looks suspiciously like what mankind thinks is a powerful being?  Mankind deferred to kings and despots, so the old testament definition of god is despotic.  Mankind saw that kings and despots conduct genocide, so their god condoned genocide, slavery, polygamy, and all sorts of pretty awful things.

Observe, for a moment, how in the LDS Church, we have a real person, Joseph Smith, who did a number of things, both good and bad.  Yet, when Mormons sing, "Praise to the Man", we have an image of Joseph Smith that hardly corresponds to the reality of the man.  He has become mythologized, to something beyond anything he actually was.  "Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it."

Our LDS family and friends revere Thomas S. Monson as the Prophet, Seer and Revelator, and in recent weeks, the announcement that he is no longer actively involved in church leadership has been met with sadness for how much we will miss his leadership.  I'm sorry, but I don't see it: within months of him taking charge of the Church, he triggered the Proposition 8 campaign, and since then, has done nothing but pursue one ill-conceived political escapade against marriage equality after another.

Yet my point isn't to criticize either Joseph Smith or Thomas S. Monson.  The reality is that they are human, no more and no less, yet in our culture, we make them more than they really are.

Is it so surprising, then, that we would create god in our own image?

Let's suggest a hypothesis: there is a god.  How would we know this?  How could we be sure that whatever we think is god, who revealed himself to ancient prophets who then attempted to kill their son, or conduct genocide, or who called for the sun to stop moving around the earth so that the israelites could slaughter their enemies -- all that -- how would we know that this "god" is the real "god" and not some demiurge -- a subordinate god who has taken over the earth?  How would we know what God's actual attributes are?  That this same demiurge told us so?

You see the problem here.  Human nature creates explanations to fill in the gaps of understanding. We mythologize historical figures to make them heros -- more than they really were.  We create an image of god in the place of what was a real person, perhaps.

Take Jesus Christ.  Another hypothesis: he was a real person who may have taught that he was the Son of God.  Again, not something I can ever prove -- but I think it's a good working hypothesis.

What on earth did Jesus mean?  What if Jesus, being somehow taught by "wise men from the east", came to a realization that God was not a being "out there", but as many Zoroastrians, Taoists, and Hindus believe, is a real presence within us all?  Jesus did live, after all, in a town that likely was a way station along the Silk Road of his time, where such travelers would have been common.

What if the real teaching Jesus taught was that (1) God is far more real and present than our idolatrous image of god in scripture can ever be, and (2) that mankind indeed shares a common heritage with god?

What if the real teaching from Joseph Smith is (1) God of the creeds -- that of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipresent being -- is a logical impossibility and an abomination, and those who profess such nonsense are indeed corrupted by a false idea of god, and (2) Mankind indeed shares a common heritage with god?

I note that Jesus condemned Pharisees in the way they had created in the Law something that wasn't there -- the rabbinical/Talmudic interpretation of the Torah was so expanded, distorted, and changed from the original message of godly love that it became an idol to worship.  The rabbis had created a law -- and a god -- in their own idolatrous image.

I note how Mormon culture, cultivated by our idolatrous worship of leaders, has created a culture of obedience to every word uttered by the anointed general authorities.  We worship an idol -- and call that idol Christ.

This leads me to realize, that not only "in the beginning" did man create god, but even today, we continue to create god in our own hateful, despotic image.

Yet in spite of this, I see hope.  Deeply spiritual hope.  Woven in our scriptures and narrative are principles that can transform our dialog and remove the sin of idolatry from us.

  • We can anchor to the singular idea that our spiritual intelligence is co-eternal with god
  • We can realize that god is not "out there" as a distinct kind of being, but rather, that God is exalted humanity.
  • We can embrace that eternal life is not some future state, but rather, as Dieter Uchtdorf has taught, we are in the glorious middle of our eternal lives -- eternity is always found in the Middle.
  • We can realize that our faith is made real by practicing love -- unconditional, abiding, perfect love, one for another.

While I no longer believe in the God of creedal Christianity, that of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being who exists outside of being -- to me it this being is a logical impossibility and a monster in the presence of random evil.  I have come to know, personally, a god within me, who weeps with me, and listens to me as I struggle through this existence.  And I have seen how this same presence is expressed when we are exalted humans -- able to love and serve one another here, now, in this life, in love.

And when I embrace this god, i start to realize that my image transforms, god creates me in his or her own image, and as i peer into the eyes and soul of my brothers and sisters, i see the very image -- the face -- of god.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

On The Priesthood as a Male Dominance Hierarchy

I am coming to the conclusion that the foremost paradigm and purpose of the LDS Church is to establish an authoritarian male dominance hierarchy, and to require members' absolute obedience to this authority.  I believe we need to set aside such authoritarian hierarchy if we are to truly love one another as Jesus has loved us.

Can we practice unconditional, egalitarian Love a Church that seems to thrive on authoritarian control over our lives?  Yes, I believe we can. But we need to explore what "The Priesthood" is and how it affects what we do in our culture.

In the natural world, a "dominance hierarchy" is social order among some kinds of animals, where the group is ordered hierarchically under a single, primary leader or set of leaders. Some animal groups have an "alpha male" leader, to whom all other males defer, and who controls the reproductive rights of the group. While some of these orders are focused on only one alpha, in more complex hierarchies, there is a kind of linear hierarchy, where each individual in the pack is either dominant or submissive to another individual in the group.  There are no true 'equals'.

In the "male dominance hierarchy", the males adopt the right of dominion, and females are subordinate to males.  Most natural male dominance hierarchies are polygynous in nature -- the higher up the male is in the hierarchy, the more females he possesses for breeding purposes.

Consider the following material from Abraham chapter 3:
"If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them; ... Now, if there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it; Howbeit that he made the greater star; as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.
"And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all."
(Abraham 3:16-19)
These words perfectly describe a dominance hierarchy in the form of a *linear ranking system*, where each spirit -- that is each of us -- is recognized as either dominant or submissive relative to every other member, creating a linear distribution of rank. Whenever two of us are together, one is dominant, one is subordinate in terms of "intelligence".  And in this case, the use of the term "intelligence" refers to the eternal value and worth/worthiness of the individual.

You may well say, at this point, that such distinction is not part of the gospel, for in Section 78, Joseph Smith, introducing the concepts of the United Order and consecration, describes the goal of being equal in both earthly and heavenly things.

Yes, we can say that all Mormons are equal.  It's just that some are more equal than others; and in fact, hierarchy pervades everything we do and are in the Church, and our one purpose is to support the hierarchy through our absolute obedience.

Consider a bit more of what is said in Abraham 3:
"Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.
"And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;  And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;"
(Abraham 3:22-25)
I don't think it is at all a stretch to observe that the LDS church, with respect to its priesthood, is strictly hierarchical.  Indeed, our English word "hierarchy" derives from the Greek term for "high priest"/"Hierarch", so priesthood is by very nature a hierarchy.

But there are three troubling elements here:

  1. There is a strict elitism in these verses in Abraham.  Those who lead were designated to do so from before this world -- there is nothing you or I can do about this.  This elitism has justified the ban on giving the priesthood to blacks, as well as fostering a kind of familial patronage/nepotism among LDS leadership.  Most LDS leaders are part of an elite group of Mormons who share common ancestry.  The rest of us are subordinate.
  2. Our purpose in life, exclusively, is to OBEY -- to prove that we will do what we are commanded. According to Abraham 3:25, life is not about learning or development, but rather, is the final test to see if we will obey.  Full stop.
  3. When we combine this strict hierarchy with D&C sections 131 and 132, observing the practice by Brigham Young and Joseph Smith as demonstrated in the case of Zina Huntington Jacobs Smith Young, we see that the pattern of male dominance hierarchy was an inherent part of the Priesthood.

One of the most important things Lindsay Hansen Park has demonstrated in her "Year of Polygamy" podcasts is that the term "Priesthood" has significant meaning to fundamentalist Mormonism.  "The Priesthood" is the code-word for male dominance hierarchy, obedience, and subjugation of women through polygamy. Obedient females are rewarded with exaltation as wives of progressively more important priesthood leaders, and lesser males are ultimately pushed out of the society as "unworthy".

We may think that this use of "The Priesthood" no longer carries the same baggage in our modern, mainstream church, but I don't think we can avoid it. The reality is that the term, today, continues to adhere to its original meaning of male dominance hierarchy, but we simply omit living polygamy.

Every aspect of our church is informed by this paradigm.  What we think, feel, and do as Mormons is conditioned to be framed by obedience to the male leaders of the Church.  We revere our Prophets, Seers, and Revelators as being special witness of the Name of Jesus Christ.  Lest we miss this point, Dallin Oaks has made it clear that this "Name" is the "Authority" of Jesus Christ.  The Order of the Church is hierarchical obedience to this authority, "whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same."

When we view core teachings of the Church today, through the temple and Family Proclamation, this paradigm becomes very clear.  The roles of men and women are distinct, and the role of the man is to lead.  In the temple, we covenant that women are to hearken to the counsel of their husbands, as their husbands hearken to the counsel of the Lord.  This is the very definition of a hierarchical relationship between men and women.  And the male dominance hierarchy is clearly demonstrated in how God commands action through the hierarchy of men, and men "return and report" back through the hierarchy to god.

When Eugene England was teaching at BYU, having a question about the nature of god, he received a strong letter of reprimand by Bruce R. McConkie explaining how this hierarchy applied within the Church today.  He wrote:

"It is not in your province to set in order the Church or to determine what is doctrines shall be. It is axiomatic among us to know that God has given apostles and prophets “for the edifying of the body of Christ,” and that their ministry is to see that “we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the slight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” (Eph. 4:11-16.) This means, among other things, that it is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent. You do not have a divine commission to correct me or any of the Brethren. The Lord does not operate that way. If I lead the Church astray, that is my responsibility, but the fact still remains that I am the one appointed with all the rest involved so to do. The appointment is not given to the faculty at Brigham Young University or to any of the members of the Church. The Lord’s house is a house of order and those who hold the keys are appointed to proclaim the doctrines."
(Bruce R. McConkie letter to Eugene England, 2/1/81)

Although the middle part of this message, stating "it is my province to teach the Church what the doctrine is, it is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent", is often used to demonstrate how dictatorial Bruce R McConkie was, we need to understand the full context of the quote.  In context, Bruce R McConkie's full statement above is entirely consistent with the mindset of Church leaders today respecting the discipline they expect from their hierarchical priesthood authorities at all levels in the Church.

Male dominance hierarchy infects every aspect of our Church.  We teach children to follow the prophet, he knows the way, and if I obey, I'll be happy all day.  We teach teenagers that they are unworthy if they deviate in any way from the teachings of the leaders of the Church, and if they entertain any aspects of their emerging sexual identity, they are "unworthy".  Teenagers regularly submit to Priesthood interviews, where the power dynamic of male dominance is strongly reinforced.  The temple endowment and sealing/marriage create covenants to formally lock members into the the male dominance hierarchy, promising that the only real power in the world is the Priesthood.  (And when the temple endowment was created, this had the specific meaning of "Polygamy").  As men progress in their adult lives, the elected ones are given progressive leadership responsibilities commensurate to their obedience to authority, while women are in supportive roles and lesser males are cast aside.

And the worst sin is to embrace any kind of gender identity that doesn't conform to the male dominance hierarchy and subordinate model for women!  Such individuals must be cast out of our presence!  To the male dominance hierarchy, LGBTQ people are an existential threat.

Even many who leave the church are still adversely affected by the male dominance hierarchy.  Feminists justifiably object to it, yet to presume that the answer is to "ordain women", while an important step in the right direction, ordination does not address the elephant in the room: that dominance hierarchy -- the literal meaning of "priesthood" -- is inherently unequal.  A far better thought would be to consider a more egalitarian model and abandon "priesthood" altogether.

The tension around male dominance hierarchy creates a tension in response within the disaffected or unorthodox Mormon communities -- something we are witnessing today.  If a male rises to a position of influence, then any behaviors reflecting the indoctrinated tendencies toward male dominance become troubling.  On one hand, the male in a position of influence needs to be aware and sensitive to his putative privilege, avoiding triggering actions and statements.  On the other hand, subordinated men and women will tend to interpret actions of the influential male in the light of privilege and male dominance.  It can be a no-win situation.

So what do we do about it?

1.  I think we first need to realize that male dominance hierarchy is not part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is a natural tendency of some animals including humans, but this is one of those tendencies that we can put into the category, "The natural man is an enemy to god".  

Jesus, noting that his disciples tended to jockey and fight together to see who was higher in the linear hierarchy, demonstrated that humility -- lowering oneself to serve the very least of these -- is the most exalted position.

Scripture tells us that in Christ, the formal "hierarchy" of the priesthood was done away.  The epistle to the Hebrews speaks of how in Old Testament times, there were priests after the order of Melchizedek.  From this, I believe Joseph Smith felt the need to "restore" such priesthood) -- except that the author of the Hebrews point in discussing this was to demonstrate that in Christ, such hierarchy (literally, "high priesthood") was done away among mankind, and that Jesus, alone, was our High Priest.

2.  The primary commandment, that is, the first, second, greatest, last, and new commandment is to love one another as Jesus has loved us.  This love is perfect, unconditional, complete, and *equal*.

And as we interpret the word "love", we cannot do so within the current Mormon understanding of the word.  To Mormons, love means this:

  • The "dominant" person demonstrates love by correcting the subordinate.
  • The "subordinate" person demonstrates love by obeying the dominant.
Love among equals doesn't work this way.  Sure, there are times when we correct each other in love, and certainly we want to do things that the other person would like us to do -- correcting and obedience are part of healthy, equal relationships.  But there cannot be hierarchy in these loving relationships -- to be One, we must embrace and accept each other in differences, without placing a precedence on one over the other.

I suggest an interesting test.  if I can both give and receive correction without resentment or retaliation, I'm probably in an equal relationship. If I and my partner have a mutual tendency to serve one another with delight, then we are approaching godly love.

Let's just be friends, then.

When Jesus finished his mortal ministry, he changed the relationship between his disciples and him, to one of being "friends".

A friend is a unique relationship -- it's to be equal to each other.  If, according to our doctrine, Jesus Christ is the creator and god over our world, then the idea that he refers to himself as our friend should mean a very great deal to us.  It means that we must set aside any kind of hierarchy, any kind of evaluation as to who is "dominant" versus "subordinate", and start working together in love.  "Priesthood" is an obsolete construct, born of a time when kings and priests controlled people's lives.

Jesus gave us, again and anew, a last commandment: That we love one another as he has loved us.  And as Jesus is our friend in love and equality, then let us do the same.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

On loving relationships

Have you ever had a friend or lover who simply understands and accepts you for who you are, and you understand and accept them for who they are?  No judgment, not trying to please one another, no expectations whatsoever, just simply the ability to relate and find peace one with another.

From my personal experience, this is rare, and somewhat momentary.  Maybe I'm wrong on this, but I see how most relationships have a sense of conditionality to them: expectations of behavior of the other, a sense of one-sidedness, a sense of who is "superior" versus "inferior", and of course judgment.  Most relationships seem to be evaluative -- constantly conditional on measuring up.

When I think of my relationship with the Christian God, it's more of the ultimately superior (god) - inferior (me) relationship, very one-sided, something in which I simply do not measure up.

I remember distinctly years ago, actually two times in the past, when I was "up" for leadership callings in my church, and I failed some major test I was under.  In like manner, in the work environment, whenever I've been at point of promotion or whatever, I simply rebel whenever I come to the point of evaluation.  Maybe there is something wrong with me -- I was so conflicted inside: wanting to be in some big position to confirm that I was OK with god, but knowing I wasn't "worthy", a part of me would veto getting put into the limelight.

The bottom line is when I am in an evaluative relationship, I develop a sense of unworthiness and self-loathing that torpedoes the relationship.

Am I alone in this?   I honestly don't know.  It seems so, because I see so many others in the journey of life are able to act without this sense of self-doubt that plagues me.

Yet something changed recently.  Over the past few years, my wife has been in the midst of some very deep health issues.  About two months ago, however, her doctors had a breakthrough, and things have steadily improved to the point that she really has found new peace and energy.  Over the weekend, she purchased my ticket to the annual Sunstone Symposium in Utah -- something in the past she disliked me doing, and yet this year, she is encouraging me to spend an entire week doing what I enjoy.

This is really significant. She is very "true believing" and struggles with my faith journey, yet in this simple gesture, she demonstrated that she no longer judges me inferior in faith because of my journey.  We have rekindled mutual respect and love -- something that was missing when our relationship had become very unequal during her extended illness.

And as this new reality sets in, I begin to realize that inequality in relationships does not ultimately feed the soul, but that only the equal, unconditionally loving relationships is true love.

And I realize, that every human being not only yearns for this kind of relationship, but indeed, it is essential for life.  I was listening to a Krista Tippett's podcast recently where it was mentioned that baby elephants require interaction and connection in order to live.  Are we so different?

So I think about it a bit.

If our relationship with god is conditional, then can we really love god, and does god really love us?

If the only form of intimacy allowed is between man and woman in marriage -- what about those who cannot be fulfilled in that kind of relationship?  Is it loving to demand that those who are only attracted to the same sex be alone for all their lives?  Is this really loving?

If we work together and serve one another in our communities and church settings, are we motivated by reward and eventual judgment, or do we serve because we love?

Does asking for help require us to submit to rules and be subordinated in order to be helped?  Is this loving?

If someone asks us for help, is it loving to expect something in return?

I don't know.  It seems like we have zero training on how to unconditionally love in our religions. Every model we get is hierarchical and patriarchal.  Even some of our leaders speak about how god's love is conditional -- so is it any surprise that we cultivate evaluative, unequal relationships and call them loving?

In order for love to be real, in my impression, it needs to be unconditional and equal.  Not every relationship will fit this criteria, but that doesn't absolve me of the responsibility to be loving. If I have any expectation of reward or behavior on the part of the person I love, then my love is not unconditional and equal.  I am basing my love on their behavior, and on my ability to transform their behavior in to what I want them to be.

Certainly this doesn't mean that I am willing to allow them to abuse and exploit me, nor should I be happy with their own self-destructive behaviors. There are boundaries to love.  But these boundaries are distinct from conditions.

I realize, in exploring "how" to love, that I have no easy answers, no deep insight into what makes a truly loving relationship.  I only know this, that I seem to do best when I am loved without judgment and conditions, and I find that others respond in kind, when I accept them for who they are, without judgment or conditions.

When I was at the depths of my crisis nearly thirty years ago, I reached out to the god who I thought was to be my judge, who inspired the teachings of my church and required my exact obedience, for no unclean thing could enter His presence.

I reached out when I was as "unclean" and "unworthy" as I could possibly imagine, driven by guilt and shame into an ever-deepening cycle of addiction and self-destruction. I loathed myself.

And yet, instead of judgment or conditions, when I reached out I felt this sense of love wash over me, a Presence that told me that I was fully accepted by god, and that god loved me without any conditions.  This Presence has let me know that to me, this is what it means to see the face of God, to know that God is, and that this Presence is real.

And I return to this Presence when I contemplate his words:
Jesus said, "Love one another, as I have loved you."

And I realize, in these moments, that the gift of God's love becomes real, when I learn to love others without judgment or conditions.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

On Conversations about Faith Crisis

I think a lot of us struggle with how to converse about our journey amid faith crisis with our traditional believing LDS family, friends, and church leaders.  Often, traditional believers want us simply to come back to traditional belief and set aside our doubts -- to "doubt our doubts" and retrench into reading, praying, and attending -- and all will be well.

Oh, if it were only that easy!

In contrast, when we come to realize that the dominant narrative of our whitewashed history and "the prophets cannot lead the church astray" is not true, then we feel compelled to share our perspective with our traditional believing friends and leaders, in a hope that they'll understand why we are having such challenges.

And the moment we open our mouths to question the dominant narrative, they stop listening, and we've gone into a different kind of relationship -- one where we hide our true feelings, "tolerate" each other, or simply part ways.

Is there a way through this impasse?

I believe there is a Middle Way through this -- a way of conversing about our faith journey in a way that helps our traditional believing friends understand us better, and helps us feel more inclusive and included with them.

Empathy requires us to put ourselves into the position of the other, to feel what they feel, to look back at ourselves through their eyes.  It's obviously a mutual process, but we cannot ask others to be empathetic.  We must learn to speak in a way that they understand.  We need to use the language of faithful Mormonism to express our journey as "part of" a faithful Mormon journey, rather than a "transition away" from true belief.

How do we do this?  How do we *honestly* talk about "faith crisis" while using terms, concepts, and language of Mormon faith?

I believe that the doctrines of our church have the answer to solve this riddle.  I do not believe we will get anywhere with using the framework of "faith transition" as a descriptor of what is going on.  Instead, I would like to frame the discussion in terms that the most faithful LDS not only would accept, but would embrace fully.  And the way to do this is to frame what is going on in terms of core doctrine and scripture.

What is the purpose of life according to LDS doctrine?  We often say that this mortality is a test, where we will be "proven herewith".  When we view that test in terms of a "final exam" -- a "judgment" -- it puts all of us into the form of judging ourselves and others as being "unworthy".  But when I studied the concept of the Trial of Faith in depth years ago, I discovered that the "trial of faith" is not a "test" in the way that we use the term.  The Trial of Faith -- the entire purpose of this life -- is *refinement": We are to be made pure by refining the gold within us: our divine nature.

So the first thing I would do is frame "faith crisis" as "trial of faith": we are going through an essential process that will bring us closer to god.  It's not a test, it's part of God's plan for us.

Second, I would try to make clear that the trial of faith is not successful if we revert to our old ways of thinking.  Again, Mormon Doctrine comes into play here: we are on a path of eternal progression -- we learn, line upon line, and precept upon precept, to come closer to god and understand the principles of the gospel.  As we go through our trial of faith, we will discover things that no longer serve us: teachings that while may be useful for us initially, have no longer served their purpose.

I would bring up at this point the entire blacks-and-the-priesthood thing.  Before 1978, many people in the church felt that this was God's plan, and framed the inequity as being a deserved, chosen position from the premortal existence.  Bruce R McConkie was a primary proponent of such thinking, yet when the revelation came out in 1978, McConkie recognized that they all spoke from limited understanding.  Perhaps the entire blacks-and-the-priesthood was a kind of trial of faith for the whole church -- the outcome of which was not to harden our position, but rather, to seek revelation from god, and when the church was ready for it, it received it.

Third, we need to understand, fully, that our purpose in this life is not a test of obedience, but rather, to learn through our own experience to distinguish good and evil.  The Garden of Eden narrative in the temple is case in point.  Unlike other Christians, we celebrate Eve's decision to partake of the fruit to make progress happen.  Without it, they would never have progressed. But it's important to recognize that "be fruitful and multiple" and "don't partake of the fruit" ended up being an impossible situation to obey both.  So Adam and Eve counseled together in their trial of faith, and made the best choice they could.  In so doing, they learned through their own experience to distinguish good and evil, and were stronger because of it.

We need to resist the urge to judge others on their choices amid their "trial of faith".  Some of us will leave the "Garden of Eden" of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Some of us will refuse to partake of the dogma of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (aka, "correlated doctrine").  These are all very tough choices to make.  If we stand by our doctrine that free-agency is the very essence of our humanity, we need to realize that each one of us is faced with choices, and one size -- or one choice -- does not work for everyone.

And lastly, I think we need to teach the principle of Love as the Connecting Principle of the Atonement.  We need to embrace the diversity of our culture rather than force conformity.  Heavenly Father has given us differing gifts -- this is in our scripture and doctrine -- and we need to embrace love for one another -- active, practical, practicing love for one another -- as the core of LDS doctrine.  This means that we lift each other's burdens, mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those standing in need of comfort.  Love never fails -- our Relief Society motto.  When we embrace god's unconditional (perfect - teleios) love (agape - the pure love of Christ), then we cannot exclude or excommunicate anyone for their lack of belief or for whom they choose to love.

So why bother with all this?

I truly believe that our "trial of faith" is more than a "faith crisis", and is definitely not a "faith transition" from one kind of faith to another.  If anything, the refinement of our faith is part of our "Plan of Salvation", of eternal progression, where we are not static beings, but those embracing higher principles as we grow on this journey of eternal life.

We have not lost our faith.  Instead, our faith is being refined -- we are growing closer to a personal relationship with god, while setting aside those things which no longer serve us.  This is a cause for celebration, not pride or arrogance, but of deep gratitude for this amazing journey.

Not everyone is at the same point in this journey.  As we embrace a more inclusive faith, we need to as well, include our traditional believing LDS brothers and sisters as neither against our journey, nor inferior to our place on the journey.  We need to find that which is in common, and realize that in loving and serving one another, we can grow together.

When we speak in supportive love to our friends, family, and leaders, we can grow together in that Love.  We need to set aside our own angst and language of faith transition, crisis, and nuance, but rather, share values through our common Mormon language and doctrine.  Then, and only then, will we change hearts and minds: both ours and theirs.

And we then can become One.

Monday, April 24, 2017

On Being Pro-Choice

I remember distinctly, years ago, when my very good conservative friend asked me what my position was on abortion.  At that time, oh, some thirty years ago, I did not have an opinion.  He was shocked.

So I went on a quest to figure out what I really believed.  At first, like many other republicans at the
time (yes, in those days I was a reliable republican), I was utterly horrified at the tragedy of abortion. But I also worked with a woman who had had one -- and to her, it was truly one of the hardest and most soul-searching moments in her life.  This made the issue very real to me.

I realized, from the woman I worked with, that there was a personal element. When a woman doesn't choose to become pregnant, I hardly thought it fair to require her to carry the child of her rapist -- she didn't have a choice, and yet such an ordeal would have life-long implications. Likewise, cases of incest, and the health of mother or child -- all seem to indicate that there are some cases where abortion can be justified. I landed on a position: that abortion should be allowed in the cases of rape, incest, and health of the mother or fetus.

Perhaps not coincidentally, my personal position landed exactly on the same position held by the LDS church.  I hope this wasn't confirmation bias, but it seemed reasonable.

But then, I had to also realize, "Who decides?"  And in considering this, even if I am personally opposed to abortion on demand or for convenience, I realized that this choice is not mine to make -- it's entirely in the hands of the one person who must make that choice: the woman.

I choose, therefore, to be firmly "pro-choice".  I see this position is fundamental to our values as Americans and critical to my personal faith.

Here is my journey through this issue:

The "pro-choice" position is not "pro-abortion". Can I be "pro-choice" and be against abortion "on demand"? Of course. The motivation behind "pro-choice" is to enable people to make their own choices as to what will happen with their own bodies. So pro-choice is about the freedom for women to choose what they can do over their bodies without religious or state intervention.

And yes, as long as a fetus is dependent upon a woman's body, then her choice matters, completely.

As Mormons, we should have a more enlightened position on this issue, and if we understand our own doctrine, we should be pro-choice. We do believe, firmly, that we should have our agency to choose, so the very nature of the "pro-choice" decision is in harmony with our core doctrines.  But it's not just about being Mormon here -- it's a fundamental issue that goes deep to religious belief and why such "choice" should be taken out of the hands of the State, for the "pro-life" position establishes one religious interpretation over another, and thus violates the First Amendment establishment clause.

The LDS Church has a position on abortion, that in the cases of rape, incest, and the *health* of the mother and fetus, abortion is allowed (the leadership would prefer to have the woman and man counsel with the Bishop in these cases). No woman should be forced to carry the offspring of her rapist, or of an abusive, incestuous man. No woman should be forced to sacrifice her life to preserve a fetus. There are also cases where the fetus is so non-viable that its death in utero would cause serious health risks.

We may say that such cases are rare, but there are enough of them to justify consideration of them in enforcing "pro-life" laws. Who arbitrates such things? How do you define "rape"? If a husband rapes his wife, should she have to accuse him of rape before the law before she has an abortion? What if she is dependent upon him for income?

These issues are thorny at best, and the law is a very blunt instrument to determine what a woman can do with her own body.

But there is much more here. We may say that the scriptures say, "Thou shalt not kill". Yet, what in scripture defines life? What constitutes a "life" in the law? In scripture, "life" was equated with "ruach" in Hebrew, "pneuma" in Greek, and "spiritus" in Latin -- all having the same meaning: "breath". In other words, a "life" according to the scriptures always began at birth's first "breath" and not before. (Evangelicals will raise the "before thou was formed in the womb" in Jeremiah, and the how the fetus of John the Baptist leaped in Elisabeth's womb; but these cases are ambiguous at best as to when life starts -- more on this later).

The Torah is even more specific on this. In Exodus 21:22-25, we read:
"If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."
This is the ONLY instance in scripture that refers to a woman losing her fetus: "so that her fruit depart from her" explicitly means the loss and death of the fetus. The consequence was that the man who caused the injury would pay the husband for the inconvenient loss of a potential offspring. That's it. But if an mischief follow -- that is, if the woman is then killed, then the person as then -- and ONLY then -- committed murder.

So where did this idea that abortion is wrong come from?

In Rabbinical Judaism, the Talmudic scholars postulated that life probably started before birth -- after all, a woman feels life in her womb during the second trimester, as the fetus' nervous system is beginning to operate. So, to prevent any possibility of violating the law, the Rabbinical approach was to build a fence around the law -- make it impossible to violate the law -- by restricting abortion.

Catholicism went further. To Catholics -- and hence, all protestants, the human soul does not exist before conception -- they have no belief in pre-mortal existence of humans. Thus, when a child is conceived, then a "new life" has begun to form -- one with an immortal soul. So, the logic goes, if you terminate a pregnancy, you are killing an immortal soul created by god.

This brings us to the real reason abortion is an issue in politics today. As part of the "Southern Strategy" to push Catholics and socially aware evangelicals toward the Republican party, the minds behind the Nixon and Reagan machines decided to make abortion a party issue. It was brilliant -- it forced most Catholics to move from being very socially liberal democrats to one-issue Republicans. We need to call this issue for what it is, and what Hugh Nibley called it: A Decoy.

But back to the doctrines about abortion. Mormons do not share these Jewish and Christian beliefs as to when the human soul begins. Mormons believe that the human spirit is co-eternal with god and exists before this life. Moreover, the spirit fully enters the body only at birth -- although you won't find this explicitly stated. The evidence for this is (1) that Jesus Christ visited the Nephites and Lamanites on the night before his birth, just hours or minutes before he was born over in the Jerusalem area, some nine hours ahead of the New World. (2) Temple work is never performed for still-born children. While there is no doubt that parents feel the loss of their still-born child, the church does not actually do ordinance work for them. Again, these aren't widely talked about things, but they are inherent to the doctrine.

Thus, whenever we get into a discussion as to whether abortion should be allowed or prohibited, the question comes into whether we are establishing a religion here. To prevent abortion is to establish one religious view over another. To support choice is to say that if your religion says that abortion is evil, then by all means, don't have an abortion. Pro-choice is the only acceptable alternative that separates church and state and allows us to freely exercise our religion according to the dictates of our own conscience for ourselves. We should NEVER have the right to force our religious views on others.

So as a Mormon and an American, I firmly believe that "pro-choice" is more than just a pro-abortion/anti-abortion issue. It's fundamental to the core principles of our democracy.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Does the War Go On?

In the Mormon Church's April 2017 Ensign Magazine, Elder Larry Lawrence of the Seventy wrote an article entitled, "The War Goes On".

I believe it is patently harmful to continue the drumbeat of Mormons against the world.  It's not only a tired, trite message, but it's really harmful.  In this article, Elder Lawrence instills fear and loathing of the world and its evil influences, stemming from his view that the "War in Heaven" continues in this world.

It's truly an awful article.  Rather than linking to it, you can search on the LDS website for it. One friend told me that his Bishop, upon reading the article, feels that it is essential doctrine, and has scheduled a special meeting to cover it.  If I were to attend such a meeting, here is what I would have in my pocket as discussion points:

Elder Lawrence said, "Satan’s strategy was to frighten people. He knew that fear is the best way to destroy faith."

I think we should agree with this statement.  Indeed, fear of others, and of the "world" is indeed what causes "faith", i.e. trust, to be destroyed.

Question to consider:
  • Does the war-time metaphor we use in our discussion of Us vs The World instill love or fear in us?  
  • When Jesus counseled us to love our enemies, can we be justified in condemning others?
Elder Lawrence asked, "How could a spirit with so much knowledge and experience fall so far? It was because of his pride...he wanted God's kingdom for himself."

Again, we can agree with this statement.  Whenever we set ourselves up as above others, and exclusive in our "kingdom", we are becoming like the Zoramites -- prideful in our exclusiveness, prideful in our repeated "testimonies", prideful in our condemnation of those who are not like us.

Question to consider:
  • When President Benson taught that Lucifer "wished to be honored above others", in what way does this apply to us?  
Elder Lawrence asks, "Why did you and I fight against the devil?"

Questions to consider:
  • Is there any evidence in scripture that we fought against Satan? or,
  • Is it more likely that we supported God's plan, and it was Satan who fought against us, in trying to bring us into bondage to fixed rules and regulations that guaranteed we could not make mistakes?
Elder Lawrence asks, "Why were Satan's hosts allowed to come to earth?" and is answers, "to provide opposition for those who are being tested here."  He then goes on for several paragraphs explaining how desperate Satan is to tempt and capture our souls.

Questions to consider:
  • Does teaching that Satan's hosts are here to provide opposition for us give us hope or does it instill fear in us? 
  • How does this teaching fit with Paul's explanation to Timothy (2 Tim 1:7) "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."?
Elder Lawrence teaches us that memorizing scripture is a way to resist temptation.

Question to consider:
  • When Elder Lawrence quotes "Love your enemies", in what way does this help us "resist Satan"?  
Elder Lawrence lays out his second strategy "Lies and Deception."

Questions to consider:
  • Does anyone actually say, "You need to try everything at least once -- just to gain experience. One time won't hurt you." Isn't this a bit of a strawman?  If we misrepresent what others say, are we being honest?
  • If the Church practices deception over its secret support of legislation, over the definition of marriage (our scriptures define marriage as one man and one or many women, see section 132), over historical and doctrinal issues in the past; and if Satan is the father of lies as Elder Lawrence says, then in what way is deception by the Church from god?
Elder Lawrence contends that "same sex marriage is only a counterfeit".

Questions to consider:
  • What is the celestial role of marriage?  In other words, what does "marriage" entitle us to have in the eternities?  (The answer is that marriage -- particularly, polygamous marriage -- is only necessary to enter the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, where people will be populating worlds without end).
  • If a person is lesbian or gay, and the counsel is that they are to remain celibate throughout their life, then how can they qualify for the "highest degree of the celestial kingdom", not having been married in this life?
  • If God's perspective in the Garden of Eden is it is not good for man to be alone, then how does the current church counsel justify condemning a gay or lesbian person to live alone for their entire life, unable to have a relationship with someone they love?
Elder Lawrence condemns "counterfeits" with D&C 50:23: "That which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness."

Indeed, LDS policy on condemning same sex marriages is indeed darkness.  It has caused a dramatic increase in suicides and attempted suicides in Mormon-dominated areas.  This is demonstrated by the data, since 2008, suicides among affected populations have tripled.  This isn't just about altitude, for there has been no change in altitude in Utah since 2008.

Question to consider:
  • In what way does the LDS policy declaring loving same sex married people apostates edify anyone?
Elder Lawrence condemns contention in the Church.

Question to consider:
  • When we condemn others, labeling them our enemies and servants of Satan in a battle, are we being loving or contentious?
This is truly a bad article -- toxic in the extreme.  We need to stop these destructive war-metaphors in the church.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

An Easter Liturgy

I have always loved Easter, above all other holy-days of the year.  It’s a glorious moment in Christianity: Christ the Lord is risen today!  Hallelujah!

The dark clouds of despair have fled away.  The Spring morning breaks, the sky is clear, the sun rises in the East, and in this morning, we embrace New Life as the Christ becomes immensely real to us.  The first Followers of the Way – as Christ’s disciples were first called – declared to each other in greeting: “He is Risen”; and the response: “Risen indeed”.

I love the Easter narratives in Scripture. The gentle intimacy of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Christ.  The appearance with the Apostles.  The appearance to the two wayfarers on the road to Damascus.  We celebrate these stories as we embrace the singular idea that "He is Risen".

Risen indeed.  What does that mean?

I believe there is some very important dimensions in the simple interaction, “He is Risen” and “Risen indeed”.

I ask myself a question: What does the idea that Christ rose from the dead mean to me?

For Mormons, we embrace the idea that Jesus physically rose from the dead, with an immortal exalted body, as the first-fruits of all others who will be resurrected physically in the future.  Our scriptures proclaim that body and spirit, inseparably connected, achieve a fullness of joy.  Yet for me, this promise of future physical life after death is so remote, so far off in the future, I struggle with how it changes my life here and now.  If I embrace the connecting principle of Love in the Atonement, does it really matter what kind of “reward” I’ll receive in the future?  I think not.  I hope that we aren’t so “carrot” motivated that we love others because we expect a future award.   Love should be its own reward – Love seeketh not its own.

A second dimension is that because Christ rose from the dead, he lives.  This is very real to me.   I was once in the depths of addiction, mainly because of the guilt I felt.  I could never drink moderately, because I felt that I had already sinned, so I might as well enjoy it. It became an obsession -- i simply could not stop. I went into AA, because frankly, all church repentance processes, including going to bishop after bishop, failed to work. At the point that I 'turned my will and my life over' to a higher power, whom I felt was 'Christ', I had a complete removal of even the desire to drink at all. ever.  In a moment of clarity, I came to know that for me Jesus lives, and is tangibly real.  I did not have to go through a period of "repentance" and proving myself worthy.  At that moment, and so many times thereafter, I came to the deep realization that atonement of Jesus Christ is absolutely real and tangible. I attribute this personal miracle to Christ. While this release from addiction could have been a result of releasing myself from church-imposed guilt, I don't know, nor do I care. The personal, spiritual experience I had from this release was very tangible to me.

But I have to say, that the personal witness of Christ I received had absolutely nothing to do with Christ having a physical body.  In Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he expresses how Christ physical body died, but rose spiritually. On the Road to Damascus, Paul met the Christ, spiritually.  Many of us have had a spiritual experience with Christ – these witness of a living presence, but do not provide evidence of a physical body, nor is the physical body necessary.

So I’m still at the point that I don’t know what “He is risen” means, as it applies to “the flesh”.

I find an answer as Paul poses an interesting question to the Colossians: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.”  The term “ye be risen” here is important: “συνηγέρθητε”/synigerthite, is in the aorist passive indicative second person plural tense, meaning that the act of being risen has already happened and applies to all time, present, past, and future.  English doesn’t have this tense, so we cannot fully grasp the significance of the term. We misinterpret the term to apply to the future – when we WILL BE risen; and that is not what Paul meant.  He meant that we have already been risen with Christ.

My thinking pauses for a moment as I contemplate this.  Have I been risen with Christ? Have I had a mighty change of heart? Can I feel so now?   These are the questions that my Mormon self asks, and the answer comes in a still small voice – I have experienced his unconditional, undeserved love!  Christ transformed me from addict, from unworthiness, from self-loathing, to becoming alive and free from such addiction, unworthiness, and self-loathing.  I cannot say that it is a permanent state of mind, but I certainly have tasted of the Love of God, and while I struggle to keep that feeling, Jesus words in the upper room come back to my mind:

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.  And whither I go ye know, and the Way ye know.” (John 14:3-4)

And that Way, is connecting in love, one to another.

On the very first day of this faith journey, I went to an AA shelter, and an old man, barely coherent, looked at me and told me exactly what I needed to know.   The details aren’t important, but a week later, everything he said would happen, happened while I was on a trip – I had received the help I needed from the Lord, and felt unconditional, unmerited Love.  When I returned from the trip, I was told the old man was now in a hospice dying of brain cancer, that he had been completely senile for some time.  In other words, a senile, incoherent ex-alcoholic was god’s messenger to me. Go figure.

A few weeks later, as I was trying to walk this new journey in the Spirit, I had a distinct feeling that Jesus wanted to visit with me that day.  It was cold, a little icy, and I decided to take the back roads rather than the interstate.  As I began to drive to work, the thought came to me again, that Jesus would ride with me, so I cleared the junk off the passenger seat.  I felt a little silly, to be sure.  Then in my mind, I saw Jesus under a bridge, with two arches.  Later, as I turned onto Route 1, driving along, I saw a hitchhiker under a railroad trestle.  I don’t pick up hitchhikers, so I passed him by.

Then, I thought about the two wayfarers on the Road to Damascus.  I turned around – and on Route 1, this is dangerous, and a little stupid. I came back picked up my hitchhiker.  We rode for a while, and I kept trying to engage him in question – seeking to find the Savior’s voice. And, well, nothing.  He just was a hitchhiker trying to get a ride on a cold morning.

Talking to my AA sponsor, later, he asked me, “What’s your problem, one of God’s children needed a ride, and you gave it to him.”

Why is it that we Mormons are so caught up on our eventual great reward in the heavens as resurrected, exalted beings, that we often forget to see how we are to be gods to each other here, now, and in this life.   Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40).

I confess I do not know if Jesus rose again in HIS flesh, but I have come to confess that Jesus is Risen, Risen Indeed in MY flesh, when I love you, and in YOUR flesh, when you love me.  Inconsistent beings, we are for sure, but in the moment we love, the connecting power of the Atonement becomes infinitely real.

So today, in love, I embrace the Easter Liturgy:

He is Risen!  Risen Indeed!