Monday, October 12, 2020

On being pro-life and pro-choice as a Latter-day Saint

Or, perhaps better said, the morality of pro-choice from a Latter-day Saint perspective.

Some years ago, a close, Latter-day Saint friend was campaigning for an elected office as a Republican. He was a deeply moral and conservative man, fully committed to both the Gospel and republican ideals.  As he sought support for his campaign, Virginia Republican Party officials interviewed him on his position on abortion. His answer was fully in line with Latter-day Saint doctrine and policy: that in the cases of rape, incest, and the health of the mother, abortion may be permitted after careful and prayerful consideration. He was rejected by the Party officials, because his position allowed for any abortion, because “abortion is murder.”

The idea that “abortion is murder” prevails in our political discourse. Those who support the right to choose abortion are labeled “baby killers,” making any real dialogue around the abortion issue deeply shrouded in political manipulation. But leaving aside this political wrangling, is it possible to have a discussion as to what the pro-life and pro-choice positions truly are, and is it possible to be morally be both pro-life and pro-choice?

To answer this, we need to explore both life and choice.

When does life begin?

Life is perhaps the most essential human right. The role of a government, and specifically this constitutional government, must be to protect life as a primary responsibility. But what is life?  When does life begin? When does it end?

Latter-day Saint doctrine is unique in many ways. We believe that the soul doesn’t begin at birth, but rather, our spirits and intelligence are eternal in nature: we lived as sentient beings before this life. In contrast, prevailing Biblical doctrine considers the soul to be created at birth—at the taking in of “breath”. The term “Spirit” from the Latin spiritus and the Greek equivalent “pneuma” all mean “breath.” The Bible, along with Talmudic tradition is unequivocal in expressing that the “Breath of Life” is the defining element of a human person. Thus, those who consider the Bible as the ultimate authority of doctrine, can find no actual, unambiguous basis to condemn abortion.

The only place in the bible where an abortion is discussed is in Exodus 21:22-25. The case is that some violent act that harms a woman so that she has a miscarriage, then the offending party needs to pay a fine to the husband for the loss of potential offspring. If, however, any harm happen to the mother, “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.” Thus, in the very scripture that demands “life for life,” the causing of a miscarriage invokes a fine and thus is explicitly not defined as a loss of life. 

Latter-day Saints have two evidences that a fetus is not yet fully in status as a life. By Latter-day Saint policy, a still-born infant, while a deeply tragic loss for the parents, does not constitute a person in our temple work: unless a child is born live, we do perform vicarious ordinances for the child. The Book of Mormon provides a second example. The night before Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem, he visited the prophet Nephi, as the fully conscious, pre-mortal Jesus Christ. Within literally minutes or a few hours, he would be born in Bethlehem as a mortal, with the veil drawn over his pre-mortal existence. He would live and develop as a human like all of us, even if his potential were fully divine. The child Jesus learned grace for grace.

Yet with all these doctrinal evidences, the idea that life begins at birth is hardly satisfying. An expectant mother perceives life in the child at “quickening:” the time when the child’s movements are apparent in the womb. As well, pre-mature children can be born by accident or violence and survive, typically after 24 weeks. If such an infant is born by accident, then birth itself is not the determinant of life, but something else must be.

One approach is to recognize that there are three necessary functions for a person to be alive: a beating heart, breathing, and brain activity.  Of the three, a person may be artificially kept alive through an artificial heart or an iron lung, but if the brain no longer can sustain coherent brain waves, the person is indeed ‘dead’. Thus, the determinant of human life is the ability to sustain brain waves – to think. When a person becomes “brain dead” through accident or disease, then keeping him or her on life support is not necessary: the person is no longer alive and life support can and should be terminated.

At the other extreme of life is when brain activity commences in the fetus such that conscious thought is possible. However we define soul, whether in Christian doctrine as a creation of God at or sometime before birth, or in Latter-day Saint doctrine when the spirit enters the body, it would require, in both cases, a suitable brain to hold the spirit. Although the nervous system begins to develop in the first trimester, and reflex action occurs at quickening, the brain cannot function without the complete development of the thalamus, which occurs at 24 weeks. Thus, while a fetus prior to 24 weeks is a potential life, it does not have the ability to house the spirit, consciousness, or thought. 

So, when does life begin? From a scientific sense, and to be consistent with how we now understand death, the presence of a functional brain provides the clearest definition of when life begins and ends. A fetus with a functioning brain should be treated as a human life in the fullest sense of the word. Prior to that, however, there is no biblical or scientific reason to consider a fetus a consciousness-capable human being at that point in time. That we personally or religiously feel otherwise means that we can and should choose to follow the dictates of our conscience. However, we do not have the right to inflict our religious opinion on others when it goes beyond protecting rights.

What is the role of choice?

Child-bearing is uniquely a woman’s role, yet the choice to become pregnant is not necessarily up to the woman. Bearing a child involves not only a significant, life-changing responsibility, it can also have significant health impacts to a woman’s body. The rights of the woman and her ability to choose matter, because of the disproportionate impact on the woman in pregnancy and child-bearing. Denying the woman the right to choose what happens with her body is a uniquely unequal treatment of women.

As a moral question, then, if a woman does not choose to have sex, as in the case of rape and abusive incest, then should she be denied the choice to terminate this pregnancy? Is it morally right to require her to bear the full responsibility for the violent act of another person?  Latter-day Saint policy is clear on this: in the cases of rape and incest, the woman may, with counseling from her church, medical, and emotional resources and prayerful consideration, choose to have an abortion. This is a difficult choice for many reasons, so the idea that the state have a say in whether or not she should have an abortion works against the Latter-day Saint religious position: our freedom to act in the dictates of our religious choice would be denied by the state. 

To legislate whether the woman has been raped is a difficult matter for the state. If the husband is the perpetrator of the rape, the wife may well not file charges, thus it would be nearly impossible to enforce the rape exception. A woman choosing the have an abortion simply would claim that she was raped, and then she could have it. 

From a Latter-day Saint perspective, choice becomes a critical matter. We do not accept a world where our religious opinions are regulated by the state. If the state prohibits abortions under all circumstances, then we are being denied our ability to practice our religion which allows for certain circumstances.

On being both pro-choice and pro-life

To summarize Latter-day Saint doctrine on life, we believe that the spirit is eternal and this body is not, and our doctrine is that the spirit enters the body at or before birth, in such a way that the only temple work we do is for persons born alive. An abortion, while certainly not a preferred act, is not murder in Latter-day Saint doctrine. Further, Latter-day Saint policy is to allow for abortions in the cases of rape, incest, and health of the mother and child. Specifically, Latter-day Saint practice is to consult with medical, ecclesiastical and counseling resources to consider the best course of action in these cases, and to prayerfully make the right choice, whatever that may be. Since the state has no role in ecclesiastical matters, and only measures competence in medical and counseling services, the state must have no role in denying the choices made by a religion—as long as the religion does not deny the right to life of another human being. 

The Latter-day Saint position, then, must be formally pro-choice: leaving the choice for an abortion where no conscious life is taken, to be a personal and ecclesiastical matter. The Latter-day Saint position must also be "pro-life" in all of its dimensions, from the moment of ensoulment to brain death. Can we be both pro-choice and pro-life?

Too often good words are used to trigger underlying meanings. When someone says “pro-life,” what they often really mean is “anti-abortion,” because in many (but not all) cases, there is no real correlation between the pro-life position and policies that, after birth, actually foster life—a pro-life conservative may be for the death penalty and against universal health-care and social safety nets. And when someone says “pro-choice,” they often (but not always) do not mean the right to choose abortion any time on demand. Yet these terms are not completely opposed to each other: many “pro-life” are pro-life in the fullest extent of the word, and few who speak of “pro-choice” want to see unrestricted abortion on demand at any time during pregnancy.

If we can set aside our being triggered, for a moment, there is a compelling reason to be both pro-life and pro-choice. Our unique Latter-day Saint understanding of the pre-mortal existence gives us another insight: we chose to come into this life, we chose to have the trials of mortality, and freedom of choice is essential in order for us to exercise our agency in this life. To Latter-day Saints, the defining difference between God’s plan of salvation and the adversary’s is the freedom to choose. So, by definition, all humans who have entered into this world were “pro-choice” in the pre-mortal existence.

It is my humble and perhaps na├»ve view that Latter-day Saints can and should be decisively pro-choice and pro-life in all of its dimensions. This means removing a divisive issue from our political dialogues, and back into our families and churches where such questions actually belong. 

I'm afraid, however, that such naivete will be rejected by both sides of this discussion. 

What are your thoughts? Can we have a reasonable discussion of pro-life and pro-choice without vilifying each other?

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Kingdom of God is Within

Late in his life, Leo Tolstoy became reconverted to the words and gospel of Jesus Christ, deeply realizing that divinity is not found in the institutions of the Church, but rather, within us as we realize the universal love of God throughout all creation.

To the end of his life in 1910, he became the intellectual force behind non-violence in the face of evil. His last writings were a set of letters between him and Mohandas K Gandhi, deeply influencing the latter.

We live in the midst of Empire. In our fears, we draw toward authoritarianism to protect us from our perceived enemies. We have become "King-men", seeking powerful men to rule us in both religion and state. We justify our choice to be subject to prophets and presidents because they protect us from evil if we but merely obey.

And we become the evil we have feared.

As Latter-day Saints, we speak of a "restored gospel", that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an authentic restoration of the Church Jesus Christ organized while he was on the earth.

This begs a question: what kind of "Church" did Jesus actually organize?

  • Was it an exclusive organization for "Saints" as they separated themselves from the evil world?  
  • Did it require exalting ordinances only to be performed in temples?  
  • Was it organized with a strict priesthood hierarchy?  
  • Did it require exact obedience to ritual laws and rules such as the Word of Wisdom?  
  • Did it require that the church be called "the Church of Jesus Christ"?
  • Was its focus on making and keeping sacred covenants?
  • Did it get involved in political issues, trying to influence civil government to enforce church-defined morality?
  • Did it preach that God's love was conditional, based upon obedience to Church authority?
  • Did it exalt the apostles and prophets as being without material flaw and that whatever they said was the mind and will of the Lord?

Jesus Christ and the early church had nothing to do with any of the above.  In fact, the early church members were Jews, their religion was Judaism, and their worship was entirely Jewish rites.  In time, owing to the near impossibility of converting non-Jewish males to Christianity by way of circumcision and kosher law, virtually all Jewish law got set aside.

In fact, the first Christians were not so named: they were "followers of the Way", and their movement was called, "the Way." (Acts 9:2) And, the Way they sought to practice was unconditional love for all:

  • it was not exclusive, 
  • did not have any "exalting ordinances", 
  • had no real hierarchy (apostles and deacons were servants, not leaders), 
  • it dispensed entirely with rituals other than Eucharistic communion,
  • had no doctrine about covenants other than they were beneficiaries of the "new covenant" being Jesus Christ,
  • strictly avoided political issues (render unto Caesar...)

So, the best way that the "restored church" resembles the original church of Jesus Christ was that within the space of the first 189 or so years, there were many transformations of structure and belief, to the point that by year 200, the church was virtually unrecognizable from the original, informal, inclusive faith of the Followers of the Way.

The institutes of religion had taken over. History repeats itself, and indeed, whenever I am asked if I have faith and a testimony in the "restoration", I can say with confidence, "absolutely."  What was a mess 2000 years ago has become a mess today.

Yet, if we are called to be followers of Christ, if we are to truly come and follow him, then what sort of people ought we to be?  In the Book of Mormon, Jesus answers, "Even as I am." (3 Ne 27:27).

From the very moment Jesus began his ministry, he declared that god had anointed humanity to "preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised." (Luke 4:18).  Jesus was excommunicated on the spot, because in quoting Isaiah 61:1 -- a verse understood to be about the eventual Jewish Anointed One -- A King -- he was offending their desire to have a king rule over them, to fix their problems.

Jesus said, "My Kingdom is NOT of this world" (John 18:36), but rather, "The Kingdom of God is within." (Luke 17:21).

Jesus fulfilled his mission by speaking truth to power.  His condemnation of church leaders of his day was far beyond the kind of criticisms today that get so many of us in the borderlands into Church Discipline.  If we dare speak up to heal the brokenhearted, deliverance to the captives, to heal the sight of those blinded by correlated doctrines, or to set a liberty those who have been subject to clerical abuse--if we do any of these in a way that sullies the "good name of the church", we will be excommunicated exactly like Jesus was.

This aspect of "come, follow me" isn't exactly what the Brethren have in mind when they use Jesus' words. And for a number of good reasons, perhaps we ought to be prudent not to follow Jesus' words in Matthew 23.

No, I think the reality is that the followers of the Way, Jesus' earliest disciples, had quickly come to a realization that Jesus' kingdom was not of this world, and that fighting against the powers that be was not in their best interest.  Even Jesus warned his disciples that the Church leaders of his day "sat in Moses' seat".   He said, "All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not." (Matthew 23:3)

The disciples of Christ lived in their church communities. They went to their Jewish Synagogues. They did their Jewish rituals. But most importantly, their inner-life, their faith, was independent of the institution.  They expressed no violence toward their institution, but rather, they sought to engage in love wherever they were.

That was the difference.

I personally find, sometimes, a complete lack of love in many of the discourses we hear in our church.  A recent talk on the Atonement in general conference makes no mention of love, yet Love was all Jesus talked about when he explained his Atonement.

He said, "By THIS shall all know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love, one for another."

Jesus placed no conditions on that love.  Does the failure of our church leaders to implement loving policies mean that we should not love them?  Should we be contemptuous of them?

Lao Tzu said,

"To the kind, I am kind,
To the unkind, I am also kind,
For there is virtue in kindness.

To the faithful, I am faithful,
To the unfaithful, I am also faithful,
For there is virtue in faithfulness."
(Laozi 49)

If I feel called to the Kingdom of God, if I feel drawn to come, follow Christ, then I feel compelled to do the inner-work necessary to find that Kingdom within me. But not just within me, but also, within you, within our church, and within all that is.

The true and living Church of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God on the Earth, is not found in institutional authority, but rather, in the mighty change of heart that draws us together in love for all.

And Love--Godly, unconditional love--is the transforming power that changes hearts.

Love is the key to the kingdom of God.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The problem of pre-mortal privilege

We have in our LDS doctrine, the idea that we lived before this life -- in a "pre-mortal existence", or sometimes shortened to 'pre-existence".

Our scriptures tell us:

"Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be."
(D&C 93:29) 
"Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was;"
(Abraham 3:22)
Image result for 2001 a space odyssey star childWe believe and teach that we humans are the Children of God, as did Jesus. We literalize this belief in the form of how we once dwelt with God in this pre-mortal existence.

It's a beautiful concept, and unique among Christian belief. I have often wondered why Christians don't accept a pre-mortal existence. True, very little is said about it in scripture, but in the early writings of the Church Fathers, Origen wrote extensively about the pre-mortal existence. To Origen, we once lived with God in the ideal existence of Plato's "forms", and because we ourselves aren't quite ideal, God created this world so that we pre-mortal spirits might improve. Origen almost had it right, but to his mind, the *less* valiant came to this earth.

But why, then, did a belief in pre-mortal existence disappear?

For one thing, scripture does not uphold a pre-mortal existence for anyone except Jesus. In fact, Paul states,
"There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual."
(1 Cor 15:44-46)
To Christians, the human soul does not precede the creation of the mortal body, but ensoulment occurs sometime.after conception. Since "Spirit", coming from the latin "spiritus", in greek "pneuma", and in hebrew "ruach actually means "breath", or the "breath of life", most early thought centered on the idea that "spirit" was breathed into a human. Thus, before our birth, we are not humans. This idea was later extended to the idea that ensoulment might occur before birth, owing to how God knew Jeremiah before he was "formed in the womb", and how the fetal infant John the Baptist leapt in the womb when Mary visited Elisabeth. This leads to all sorts of discussion about abortion -- but I digress. The point is that Christians hold fast to the idea that our human soul did not exist before conception/birth.

And in around 553, Origen and especially his doctrine of pre-mortal existence were declared "anathema"/("accursed"), thus causing the loss by burning about 60% of Origen's scholarly work. And thus, pre-mortal existence is considered antithetical to Christian dogma.

Yet, there is something really attractive about the idea that we have immortal souls, spirits co-eternal with god. It's perhaps one of the most beautiful doctrines we have in our LDS faith. We believe that we are co-eternal with god! We are inherently made of the same stuff of god.

If this is what pre-mortal existence brings, then I'm all for it.

When I was amidst the depth of this faith journey, I had my deepest crisis in 2009 in the wake of Proposition 8, when I learned of all the underhanded, deceptive maneuvers of the LDS church to fight against marriage equality. Having a gay daughter, who was alive then and today by virtue of coming out and commiting to a stable relationship, I felt, and still feel, that I cannot morally and ethically support a system that denies relational love to some of god's children.

I believed then, and still do, that each human is co-eternal with god and deserves our utmost respect and dignity.

So in 2009, I was faced with an idea that I needed to find some place where each human is recognized as divine. So I went to India, partly for work, but mostly for the idea that I needed a break from mormonism.

As I arrived, I found it to be an amazing experience. India is quite unlike anywhere in the world: yes, it's very populated and poor, with horrible infrastructure -- but these problems exist in a lot of the world. But there was something there -- a kind of feeling that the entire experience was alive, infused with spirit. I went very deep into hinduism, to the point that I would say that most of my colleagues thought I went off the deep end.

Yes, Hindu's believe in a pre-mortal existence. The Gita quotes Krishna (god) as saying to Arjuna (everyman),
"There was never a time that I was not, nor you, nor these lords (his enemies on the field of battle), and there will never be a time when we shall cease to be."
(Bhagavad Gita 2:12)
As I embraced Hinduism, i associated with the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy -- subscribing to non-dualism ('advaita" means not-two, and "vedanta' means the end, or objective to which the Vedic scriptures point), that our very soul, the "atman" is one with the creator/soul of the Universe (Brahma). "Atman is Brahman".

My experience in India culminated at the Ramanashram in Thiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, the spiritual refuge of Sri Ramana Maharshi, who advocated silent meditation upon the principle question 'who am I", to cultivate the non-dual experience and thus, enlightenment.

While at the Ashram, I went with my Indian host to the Annamalaiyar Temple, to participate in a very sacred lingam/fire worship in the most sacred portion of the temple. There, covered in layers of multi-colored dust and sweat, I felt....nothing.

Image result for thiruvannamalai
I was there at this temple, participating in this sacred ritual for one reason: my host was as close to Indian royalty as one can get: he was of the Brahman caste, his grandfather was once President of India, and he was wealthy beyond belief.

After two years, I began to realize that the idea of re-incarnation, the idea of multiple mortal probations, essentially justifies the notion that people are distinct in this life, and they are, because in their prior life, they weren't as 'valiant' as others.

I believe that many of India's deepest problems, today, remain the idea that they are very much a caste-based society, even if they try not to be.

So I returned after two years to my home in America, where, at least in the words of Jefferson, "All [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

And I returned to activity in my "home" religion, having realized that enlightenment is where we choose to find it, and not within any given church or faith tradition.

But I still held dear to the idea that we are immortal spirits, co-eternal with god. Is that so wrong?

I'm coming to believe, now, that it can be very wrong, if the idea of some pre-mortal privilege allows us to enable and justify privilege in this life.

Unfortunately, there is a very powerful element in our Mormon religion that does enable and justify privilege.

Back to the "Book of Abraham":
"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."
(Abraham 3:22-23)
As I step back to consider this verse, I realize that it explicitly states that the very core of the "Abrahamic Covenant" is that there are those who are "noble and great ones", and thus qualify, either by birthright or disposition to be part of the elite chosen ones, and there are those who are “not chosen”.  This is what our definition of the “Gathering of Israel” is all about.  This is the very essence of what our patriarchal blessing’s pronouncement of tribal alignment is all about.  It is my declaration that I am somehow special, unique, *privileged*.

This doctrine found fruition during my mission, when we were taught that not only are black people cursed by their ancestral heritage and premortal existence, but also, that god has selected just a few to become members of the church, and our role as missionaries was simply to find them as quickly as possible.  It really didn’t matter if people were ready to be baptized, for if they were of the pre-mortal status of “noble and great ones” -- that is, “spiritual Israel” -- they would accept the Church and become naturally part of it.

And it’s not just that Church members are the chosen: even among the “chosen” who are members of the church, there are those who are “foreordained” to leadership, either by their *birthright*, or by some special dispensation.  Privilege, by virtue of male priesthood, or by being known to the inner-circle of brethren, or by virtue of elite ancestry, drives much of who is chosen to lead and who is not chosen.

Related imageAnd each Sunday, we hear how special we are.  We testify of how true our church is compared to the evil world.  We shun those who don’t conform to the standards of obedience and privilege we exhibit every day in our meetings.

Worse, we worship our leaders as if they are truly the “Noble and Great Ones”, and dismiss any teachings by those who are lesser than the privileged fifteen, when the outside teachings in any way contradict the teachings of our Prophets, Seers, and Revelators.

But it’s not like we are uniquely bad in this.  As I noted after two years, Hinduism is full of privilege.  The very essence of Protestant Christianity is oft infused with Calvinism, the very notion that God elects only a few to be saved.  Privilege and elitism is everywhere in our faith traditions, in our politics, in our culture.  So, why, then, would it not be also in our Mormon faith?

And I believe God calls us to a different path.  I hear Jefferson’s words that “all [people] are created equal” in the words of Nephi:
“The Lord…inviteth all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God”
(2 Ne 26:33)
God calls us to unconditional love, by both loving our neighbors as well as our enemies.  We thus cannot be partial in our love.  James puts it succinctly:
My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "Have a seat here, please," while you say to the poor man, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name which was invoked over you?
If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin.
Jesus said,
“Be ye therefore unconditionally-loving, even as your Father in Heaven is unconditionally-loving.”
(Matthew 5:48).
How can we be “complete” or “impartial” if our model of who we are is infused with pre-mortal privilege?  How can we actually love one another as friends, if we adopt the doctrine in the Book of Abraham that says that in each relationship, there is one that is “more intelligent than the other”?

James asks, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom”?  And so should we ask, “Are we operating from a position of privilege in dismissing our brothers and sisters?”  King Benjamin asks, “Are we not all beggars?”  And so we should ask, “Am I justified in rejecting another human because they are less than me?”

And Jesus ministered to the adulteress, to the publicans and sinners, and to those who were shunned by the elite of Israel.  He washed the feet of even Judas his betrayer.  To my mind, Jesus, master of all, lowered himself to become us, so that we might become like him – not as an elite, but rather, as the lowliest servant of all.

While I continue to try to think that the idea of pre-mortal existence is a beautiful concept, the risk of using the doctrine to justify inequality is, in my mind, too great.  It is better to lose the doctrine of pre-mortal privilege if it in any way results in a sense of privileged mortality.

We are divine.  This I know.  But we are ALL equally divine.  This is my faith.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Problem of Divine Dictation

For me, the most useful strategy that helps me stay constructively engaged in the LDS Church is to accept that all scriptures and prophetic pronouncements are given through inspiration, communicated through the mind and heart of the revelator, and expressed in the language of our current understanding.

Thus, I can accept that our scriptures, doctrines, and commandments are infused with human bias and cultural artifacts.  While at best they point to eternal truth, the words themselves do not have to be literally true.

This is my faith.  Yet, I am not sure my faith is welcome within the walls of the church.

A missionary gave his testimony yesterday of the Book of Mormon: that every word in it was hand selected by god to be there.

I wish I could dismiss his statement as being the enthusiasm of a young man, but I cannot.   The idea that the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham were divinely dictated is a core truth claim of the church today, and serves as the basis of why we must not question or doubt the commandments issued forth from the living prophet.

For if god dictates the words of scripture, then those very words are the Word of God, infallibly stating eternal Truth.  God cannot lie, nor can god be the author of confusion.

Does god dictate?

Is god a dictator?

I realize that the above two questions are using the word “dictate” in completely distinct ways: that god might dictate some words doesn’t mean that god is a dictator in the usual sense of the word... or does it?

Consider one of the verses in the Book of Abraham:

“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 3:19)

What is this verse saying?  Abraham chapter 3 is about how god has somehow favored a specific set of people to be “noble and great ones” in this mortal life based upon their valiance in the pre-mortal existence.   And more to the point: in any relationship between two people (“spirits”) one is greater than the other.

If I accept this verse, then there is a strict precedence hierarchy of all beings: humans are not created equal in this life, but rather, there are those foreordained to lead, and others not so.  This concept justified the exclusion of blacks from having the priesthood, for Pharoah supposedly was a descendent of Ham, who married one of the descendants of Cain, preserving the curse.

Oh, sure, we can ignore this idea, for since 1978, all *men* can have the priesthood, so it’s a non issue, right?

Uh, no.

Precedence hierarchy has not gone away in the church, but in fact is the very essence of the church.  The word “hierarchy” is the key: it derived from the Greek word for “high priest” “archiereus” or hierarch—“hier” meaning “holy” and “arch” meaning “ruler” (literally, "first in precedence").  The very object of male priesthood is to implement hierarchical “holy rule” on earth.

And as much as the new temple wording has equalized much in the church, the man still “presides”.  Jefferson’s words that “all men are created equal” are not scripture to us.

Priesthood *is* hierarchy.  And hierarchy is the means whereby god dictates his will to his servants.

Some years ago, I was conducting the music at a stake priesthood leadership meeting where President Boyd K Packer was to “preside”.  We were instructed to silently be in our seats fifteen minutes ahead of time.  When President Packer entered the room, we all stood in reverential silence.  The order of procession was carefully aligned to the precedence hierarchy of area and stake leaders at the meeting.

As the procession came toward the front of the chapel, I was on the stand directly in front of them.  I made eye contact with President Packer and gave him a gesture of respect.  There was nothing in response: I might as well have been looking into the eyes of a shark: lifeless, harsh, and dead.

I did not exist to that man.

Yesterday, the Sunday School class covered Matthew 5-7.  The discussion turned to Matthew 5:48 “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect”, and my wife was asked to read a quote by Russell M Nelson stating that the verse referred to eventual perfection when we are “complete”.

I commented that as much as I appreciate the better translation of “teleios”/complete rather than “perfect”, the verse is not about any kind of perfection, either in the present or future, but rather, it was about unconditional love.

The teacher then responded with, “that’s exactly what RMN said...”.   I dropped the point.  Not a single person in that class could, or would, dispute the words of the Prophet.

You see, the Prophet is one of the “Noble and Great Ones”, chosen before he was born, as Wendy Watson Nelson so often points out.  And in his sleepless hours at night, the Lord dictates to him what he is to do as presiding high priest (hierarch) of the church.

How can anyone question or doubt the prophet who receives divine dictation?


I am reminded, ironically, that there were two plans presented in the pre-mortal existence.  One plan was the plan of divine dictation and compelled obedience.  The other was to learn through our experience, making mistakes, improving ourselves, and being forgiven by grace.

I am reminded that Jesus condemned the hierarchy of his church, while preaching to the most dejected of alleged sinners.  As the presiding high priest, he lowered himself to the lowest of slaves and washed the feet of sinners.

I embrace the idea that Jesus ultimately invites us to be friends rather than master/servants—he said, “call no man your master”.  A friendship is a relationship among equals: there is no hierarchy among friends.

When I embrace what Jesus actually taught, I realize God does not control, compel, or dominate.  The very notion of “divine dictation” is at odds with everything Jesus taught.

God is not a dictator.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Understanding Godly Love and Leadership

I cannot help but observe that LDS Church President Nelson's leadership style is dramatically different from his predecessors.  As I see it, not since Joseph and Brigham have we seen a leader who is willing to decisively declare that he is receiving revelation.  And in all three cases, I find that many of these “revelations” are in fact, things they made up.

On November 1st, President Nelson tweeted: "We are witnesses to the process of restoration.  If you think the Church is fully restored, you're just seeing the beginning.  There's much more to come.  Wait until next year, and the next year.  Eat your vitamins, get your rest.  It's going to be exciting!"

I am not sure I know how to process this. Or maybe, I'm quite sure I don't want to process this. Something seems amiss here, because if we are talking about a "restoration" to what Jesus actually established among his disciples as his Way, the past ten months have moved radically away from that.

When Jesus was in the upper room with his disciples, he demonstrated a different kind of leadership than the world had ever seen before. They considered him their Lord and Master, but to make a very important point, he removed his clothes, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed their feet -- something that the lowest of all slaves would do, for to touch people's feet was to remove the excrement and filth that had gathered there.

This was not a sacred ritual, washing their feet from the blood and sins of this generation; as I understand the foot-washing ritual is in the second anointing of our Church and culture.  No.  This was an object lesson in divine, inspired leadership: the leader is not at the top of a hierarchy, but rather, at the bottom.  A leader serves.  A leader empowers.  

Lao Tzu said, "The highest form of leader is the one people barely know about.... When such a leader does his work, and success is accomplished, the people all say, 'we did it by ourselves!' "

In one of Joseph Smith's most inspired moments while suffering in Liberty Jail, he contemplated the difference between being "called" to leadership, versus being "chosen" as a truly inspired leader. I sense that this was a time of self-reflection, for he had just experienced two years when his leadership style had become ruthlessly authoritarian. The result was that most of his original fellow Saints left the church, and both the Kirtland and Missouri communities had failed under Joseph’s authoritarianism.

In his letter from Liberty Jail (D&C sections 121-123), Joseph highlighted how it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise "unrighteous dominion".  Dominion is a kind of leadership: the one where one holds power over others.  Joseph then explained ten reasons why such dominating leadership often fails:

1. Heart set upon things of the world
2. Aspire to the honors of men
3. Covering of sins
4. Gratifying pride
5. Ambition
6. Control
7. Dominion
8. Compulsion
9. Hypocrisy
10. Guile

There is bitter irony here.  Joseph had just twice attempted to establish an order where the Church took over all aspects of community life -- the things of the world in a very controlled, dominating structure.  A group of Danites formed to control, dominate, and compel Church members to conform or leave town. Olivery Cowdery and others pointed out Joseph's hypocrisy in the wake of the Fanny Alger affair.  And a pattern of dissembling began to take hold -- guile -- attempting to cover the sins of this emerging practice of spiritual wifery.

Indeed, when we read this very long letter from Liberty Jail, Joseph is complaining about injustice, seeking revenge on his enemies, while the Lord is attempting to bring his mind and soul into peace. Joseph even wrote that a committee should be established to gather the writings of suspected enemies in order to cleans the church -- the origin of the "Strengthening Church Members Committee" of which Russel M Nelson was a founding member in our modern times.  It's almost as if this letter is a dialog between Joseph Smith the man seeking power and revenge, versus a God who seeks to teach what love and leadership should be.  

Somehow, in this amazing and troubling letter, the voice of God emerges, when Joseph writes: "No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood."  

How can this make any sense in the modern LDS church?  Priesthood authority was the key innovation introduced by Sidney Rigdon, and became the very reason that Kirtland and Missouri failed.  "The Priesthood", as in the authority to engage in plural marriages, was the reason that Nauvoo failed, and Joseph was killed.  And as "The Priesthood" became the literally dominating power in Utah under Brigham Young and his immediate successors, it also became the reason the Church was disenfranchised in 1889.  

It would seem like they didn't pay attention to this phrase: "No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood". 

Then, God speaks what the qualities of divine leadership should be, giving ten inspired leadership qualities:

1. Persuasion
2. Long-suffering
3. Gentleness
4. Meekness
5. Love unfeigned
6. Kindness
7. Pure Knowledge
8. Faithfulness
9. Charity towards all
10. Virtue 

When I compare these two lists of ten bad or good leadership qualities, when I look to my top LDS leaders, what do I see? 

It's not good.  Not good at all.  I see almost none of the qualities of divine leadership, and lots of control, dominion, and compulsion.  “It’s not negotiable” is the complete opposite of persuasion, gentleness, and meekness.  By Wendy Watson Nelson's own admission, Russell Nelson is now unrestrained by anyone now that he is President of the Church: he can do what he always wanted to do, but couldn't.  It’s as if we are seeing a fulfillment of Joseph Smith’s warning  “As soon as they get a little authority”.

But now, as I find myself reacting to this behavior, my soul is troubled.  Who gives me the right to judge?  Why should I even care?  If I judge my leaders for their failings in leadership, am I not also guilty of the same things?  Paul puts it, "Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things."

Maybe I need to look at it differently.  Confucius said that we can find our teacher anywhere: even among bad examples, for therein we learn what not to do.  

So I'm thinking about this, and realize that our current leadership in its authoritarian excess is an example of the male ego gone awry, and I often do the same.  

But what is the answer?  

As I look at the ten good and bad leadership qualities, I find a strong correlation between another list: the qualities of godly love Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

Love is not:
1. Envious
2. Boastful (vautteth not itself)
3. Proud (puffed up)
4. Mean-spirited (behaves unseemly)
5. Self-seeking
6. easily provoked/reactive
7. scheming (thinketh no evil)
8. rejoicing in iniquity (inequality)

Love is:
1. Long Suffering,
2. Kind
3. Rejoicing in Truth
4. Always protecting (stegei - does no harm)
5. Always faithful
6. Always hopeful
7. Always endures
8. Always wins (never fails)

It seems to me that the correlation between good and bad love and leadership is nearly one to one in these attributes.  Godly Leadership is Godly Love.  Anything less than that is not love, nor is it godly.

I have a choice today.  For me, the right choice is to observe that we now have a leader of our church who has taught that God's love is conditional, and has taught for revealed doctrine the commandments of men.  

And in observing what kind of leadership we have, I also have a choice as to what do do with this observation.  I could, and often do, let it bother me -- but this is to judge, and to get upset about that which I cannot control.

I can also ignore the situation -- and try to embrace the idea that the prophet can never lead us astray -- but I can no longer walk this path.  To follow in the Prophet's footsteps is to practice the opposite of Godly love and divine leadership. 

Instead, I choose to follow Confucius advice: learn from the example, even if it is a bad one.  

I find myself realizing that divine, inspired leadership is entirely about love, and as such, I need to find in my heart the way that I can live in this culture according to God's way of doing things: through long-suffering, kindness, pure knowledge, and love unfeigned.  

Every attribute of divine love and leadership applies to how I must address my involvement with this church.  

1. To be "long suffering", in the original meaning, meant being enduringly compassionate and slow to passion; this, I need to remain engaged and not react to that which causes us anger.

2.  To be "kind", in the original meaning, meant to be Christlike in giving a hand to others: it's true empathy, especially to those who don't seem to deserve kindness.  Lao Tzu said, 

To the Kind I am Kind.
To the Unkind, I am also Kind.

Our kindness, like our love, must be unconditional.

3.  To rejoice in truth, is to embrace truth from wherever it may come, and never cover our sins.  It means speaking truth to power, lovingly, respectfully, but completely honestly.

4.  To always protect -- to "bear all things", means that I will stand and protect the vulnerable who are adversely affected by this church and its heinous policies toward some.  

5.  And I will be faithful -- always faithful -- or as the marines say "Semper Fidelis".  I will stand by my brothers and sisters in this marvelous journey of A Thoughtful Faith.

I can do more.  I can love.  And I can love in the way God loves: unconditionally.  

And you know?  right now that's really hard.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

On the Atonement as Love

Today is the midpoint of Holy Week.

Yet here we LDS are in our community, troubled by so many revelations of impropriety, of anticipation of announcements of Conference, that I feel we are losing the deep significance of what Christians celebrate this week.


Our third article of faith says: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”

I think this really says what we Mormons think of the atonement: it is the eventual forgiveness of our sins, the redemption of our fallen state, conditioned upon our obedience.

Our Book of Mormon explicitly defines atonement as being necessary to satisfy the demands of justice, for if mercy robbed justice and removed the punishment for our sins, god would cease to be god.

I wonder.

I really, really wonder about this concept that justice demands punishment else god would cease to be god.

And I doubt it.

It makes no sense to me, not any more.

I recognize that in rejecting our LDS and Christian definition of atonement, I probably offend some and put myself outside of Mormon and Christian orthodoxy.  To the self-appointed defenders of our religion, my questioning and doubting of the atonement as defined in our scripture and articles of faith makes me “antichrist”.

So be it.

I have come to realize that the atonement, as taught by Christ himself, has nothing to do with penal substitution or the satisfaction of a justice bound god.

It is entirely about Love.  And only about Love.

Last year on Wayfaring Fool we did a contemplation of the atonement as taught by Christ in John chapters 11 through 17.   We discovered that during the Atonement discourse and events, Christ taught nothing about the fall and the necessity to satisfy god’s justice.

Midpoint in the week, we explored the Atonement in the context of Judas’ betrayal and the separation we feel from god and each other.  All the symbolism of the Garden of Eden narrative, the betrayal, the very crucifixion — these all demonstrate a pattern of separation.

To reconcile this separation, to atone, is not by virtue of some payment that gets us out of hell —be it “free” in evangelical Christian thought, or “after all we do” in Mormon scripture—atonement is the call to BE ONE.  Present tense.  Something we are called to DO in order to be One.  The atonement is the opposite of separation: it is that which connects us.

And what is that Commandment?  What is the connecting power of the Atonement?

Love.   God’s Love.  Unconditional Love.  A new Commandment, that we love one another. 

But much more.  That we abide in love.

True, Jesus said, “if ye love me, [ye will] keep my commandments.”  And then he said, “and this is my Commandment: that ye love one another as I have loved you.”

But what does this mean to love someone?

1.  Love is unconditional: it does not judge.

Our Mormon definition of love often includes judgment and reproach.  We love our children, and thus demand that they stay on the Lds path without deviation—if they stray, then they are cut off from our presence.  This is he pattern stated by god in the the Book of Mormon: if ye keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land.  If ye keep not my commandments ye shall be cut off from the presence of god.

Our current prophet spoke of how god’s love is not unconditional.  Our church defines Jesus as Judge, and patterns all church officers as being “common judges”, discerning the Worthiness of members.

Judgment of others is deeply engrained in our culture.  And we judge those who judge.

Yet Jesus said: “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world”
(John 12:47)

So, when we embrace the atonement as Love, we too must cease to judge others.  Love does not judge.

2.  Love is not hierarchal, but equal.

Deeply embedded into LDS doctrine is the idea that there is a hierarchy of intelligence, that whenever two people exist, one is more intelligent than the other.  The Lord is more intelligent than all others, and our priesthood leaders are the noble and great ones, chosen before they were born.  (Abraham 3)

Accordingly, we revere our leaders, we put upon them honorific titles of bishop, President, elder...  we consider them the lord’s anointed and any evil speaking of the lords anointed is cause for church discipline,

We even have a temple ordinance, the second anointing, that declares that these elect are *separate* and holy from the rest of us.  In deep irony, the ordinance includes the washing of feet, pronouncing that the recipient is clean from the blood and sins of this generation.

Yet when Jesus did this very act, he was demonstrating the exact opposite: the washing of feet was a demonstration that the person called to lead is to set himself beneath those he is called to serve.

And Jesus called us to be friends: the only kind of relationship that is truly equal.

3.  Love is about now, not the future.

When our narrative about the atonement focuses upon being “saved” in the future, I believe it takes us out of the present, and puts us into a mode of self preservation and self exaltation.

Yet Jesus did the opposite.

Somehow, we equate this with how by his death and resurrection we too will be resurrected into eternal life if we are “worthy”.

This focus on future personal salvation and exaltation is the opposite of what I believe Jesus called us to do in his atonement.

He called us to Be One through Love.

To *Be* is eternal present tense, not about becoming something in the future.  Jesus quoted Psalm. 82 in declaring “Ye ARE gods” even if we will die like men.  To be is the very Name of God: Yahweh—I AM.

To be One is to be unified in our diversity.  It does not mean that we are singular and separately saved.  To be One is to be fully connected in our diversity.

And what is that connecting power?  How can we BE ONE?  Jesus answers, through Love.

Love is present tense.
Love never judges or separates us.
Love does not seek her own, it is never hierarchal.
Love abides forever.

Love is the First Commandment.
Love is the Second Commandment.
Love is the Greatest Commandment.
Love is the Commandment upon which all else depends.
Love is the New Commandment.
Love is the Last Commandment.
Love is the Atonement.

Love is something we do.

Here.  Now.  Together.


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 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.