Thursday, December 29, 2011

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Jared Diamond.  "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race."  Discover Magazine, May 1997, 64-66.

I discovered Diamond's essay for the first time several years ago, while I was reading up on human health (in an ongoing quest to improve my own).  I was intrigued, and eventually convinced, although I know that there are important points to be made against Diamond's pessimistic take on agricultural civilization (e.g. the arguments raised by Steven Pinker).  That said, this post is going to be my version of Diamond (dumber, shorter, and with less references).  I wrote the original version of the post in response to a friend, who forwarded an article lamenting recent decline in the birth rate among nations of the First World.  I have seen several such articles, all of them implying that social upheaval (broken economies, crime, etc.) is owing to a lack of babies, a lack that these writers (if I understand them correctly) seem to ascribe to widespread laziness.  My fellow First Worlders are not "putting out" as industriously as they should, and will be rewarded with the implosion of their padded social safety nets (as fewer kids exist to care for more and more parents, aged and helpless).  I doubt this.  Following the train of thought developed by Daniel Quinn, I further doubt that a reduction in human population worldwide would be a bad thing (necessarily: I am not saying that it would be great, either; it might, however, be natural -- as good or bad as rocks, waterfalls, and bacon).  Here is what I wrote, with a little minimal editing.

I think population reduction is a healthy response to imbalance in resources.  We simply don't have the goods to fuel endless growth (in people or the things they require to exist, things like food, water, shelter, clothes, entertainment -- unless we are willing to drastically reduce our expectations in these areas).  We are adjusting to several environmental factors, e.g. globalization (and concomitant competition for increasingly scarce resources), climate change (which may or may not have anything significant to do with us), and technological revolution (which has addicted increasing numbers of us to luxuries like running water, food that someone else prepared, housing that someone else built, gadgets that someone else invented and mass-produced, and lifetimes spent working narrow careers with companies that don't go belly up). 

Historically, the agricultural model for human survival has been to reproduce like insects: we made lots of people -- lots of sick, blind, stunted, relatively weak people -- and took over from the hunter-gatherers (who were healthier, sharper-sighted, taller, stronger, and even more mentally capable than we) by sheer force of numbers.  One familiar episode in this ongoing saga is the displacement of the American Indians by boatloads of European riff-raff (whose guns, germs, and steel paved the way for them to become a dominant force worldwide).  Indians were healthier (as individuals), more sustainable (as communities), and less numerous than the immigrants who replaced them.  We were the mites and moths and hornets who overran their beehive.  Now, it's our turn to be overrun.  Maybe the result will be just another opportunistic parasitism, but I don't know.  I get the feeling that other societies are collapsing too: people are living shorter and sicker lives all over the world; standard methods of producing the energy modern civilization requires to exist are failing; economies are imploding (not just in Europe and North America: India, China, and their neighbors are also looking less than robust these days).  I think we may just have to learn to live with less; and that may mean that there will be less of us.  Our old methods for solving these dilemmas are (1) plague and (2) wars: the last century saw us pushing (1) away while embracing (2) with all our might.  I think we might be due for a switch, with (1) returning (in the form of rampant diseases of civilization: diabetes, syndrome X, autoimmune disorders, obesity, failure to thrive, infertility, heart disease, stroke, cancer, etc.) and (2) fading (as we stagger away from a century of vicious fighting).  I could be wrong, of course.

A central concern here is quality of life.  If we are all willing to live in really primitive conditions (such as many of our forefathers endured), then the agricultural model offers a kind of haven, but it comes with a price, deliberately breaking the individual to save the community: better 1000 people barely alive than 100 thriving.  The price for the civilization that is India is the dung-heap that is Mother Teresa's Calcutta.  The price for the relatively few rich and prosperous people worldwide is a much larger group of starving and miserable people (who make clothes for the rich, grow their food, clean their houses, etc.).  This is the way agriculture is and ever has been (even in Mormon Utah: Brigham Young and his close friends were millionaires while others eked out a hardscrabble existence in a howling wilderness that has yet to blossom as Temple Square).  Do we want to perpetuate that?  I am not sure.  I don't have final answers.  But I think a lot of people with elective power are using it (in their own lives) to build a kind of middle-class freedom that is ultimately anathema to the agricultural model (which requires them to be serfs).  Women don't want to be baby-making machines.  Men don't want to spend their lives slaving away for the Man so that their fourteen sons can fight for the privilege of taking their spot on the line when they are too wasted and decrepit to hack it any more.  Nobody wants to bet on the longevity of social contracts that are collapsing all over (as education becomes increasingly overpriced and meaningless, at least in terms of securing long-term gainful employment that serves the employee rather than his feudal masters).  There is your threat to the family: good, old-fashioned supply and demand.  If there is no food for my family, no place for them to live, no job that will allow me to provide them with these things, then how am I supposed to have one (a family, that is)?  Many people just cannot afford it (unless they are willing to bring their kids up as serfs, which those of us in the First and Second Worlds are loathe to do: we were raised as gentry or honorable artisans, not slaves).  So population declines, with acts of God (plague, environmental conditions) and human anxiety (increasing uncertainty about the future) as proximate causes.

Since this is a topic of recurring interest to me, there will be more about it on the blog.  I am not done with it yet by any means.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My New Church?

Judging from this podcast, my ideal church might be a gym.  I would really like to participate actively in MovNat, at some point in the future.  (And I already wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago in minimal footwear: Julien Smith beat me to it, of course!)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gangsters for God

Harold Schindler.  Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder.  Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983.  ISBN: 087480440X.

Marco Amenta.  "La siciliana ribelle."  Music Box Films, 2009.

I just finished Schindler's biography of Porter Rockwell, which I have been reading while walking to and from my office: it breaks up the monotony of my day, and gives me something to think about besides all the jobs that I am not going to get.  I have actually enjoyed it a good bit.

Rockwell was quite a character.  Many people loved him (not just the LDS leaders whom he served faithfully).  Many people hated him (especially after he was implicated in the attempted assassination of Lilburn W. Boggs, the infamous governor of Missouri who signed the extermination order evicting the Mormons from his state).  Many people feared him.  Whatever your personal reaction to the man, it is really hard not to be interested in him, at least.  I learned that he joined the church young, that he befriended the prophet Joseph Smith, and that (like the prophet) he was rendered lame by an accident (which left one of his legs shorter than the other).  I learned how he was personally affected by the war between the Mormons and the Missouri settlers that ended in Boggs' extermination order, a war that saw lawless violence on both sides.  I learned that he spent nine months languishing alone in jail, waiting to be tried as Boggs' murderer, attempting at least two escapes before he was finally exonerated due to lack of evidence.  Early Mormon history contains many stirring tales; one of the most dramatic is undoubtedly the one of Rockwell's unexpected return from Independence, Missouri (where he was freed from jail December 13th, 1843), to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he interrupted the prophet Joseph's Christmas party (December 25th):
Fifty couples had accepted the prophet's invitation to dine and dance at his home, celebrating not only the Christmas season, but also Joseph's victories over the forces against him.  He had been three times arrested and three times acquitted during the year on charges preferred by the state of Missouri.  Bennett had been defeated.  And Joseph had successfully weathered the storm of controversy surrounding the doctrine of plural marriage.  Most important, Joseph had secretly decided to become a candidate for the presidency of the United States.  Suddenly the festivities were interrupted by a noisy scuffle at the front door.  Members of Joseph's Life Guard were struggling furiously to control what they thought to be a drunken Missourian who was punching and jabbing in every direction.  The prophet, resplendent in his Legion costume, pushed through the crowd to the center of the disturbance and ordered the guards to throw the intruder out forcibly.  As Joseph turned to walk away he was caught by something familiar in the filthy, disheveled specter of a man whose hair dangled in greasy snarls down his shoulders.  For a moment Joseph looked the creature full in the face.  It was grinning at him.
"To my great surprise and joy untold," he wrote, "I discovered it was my long-tried, warm, but cruelly persecuted friend, Orrin Porter Rockwell, just arrived from nearly a year's imprisonment, without conviction, in Missouri."  For Joseph, his friend's appearance was the fulfillment of his prophecy of March 15 that Rockwell would "honorably escape" the clutches of the Missourians.  Rockwell was the center of attention, and after partaking of a glass of the wine which flowed so freely at the festivities, he sat down with Joseph and a knot of church dignitaries to recount his trials since fleeing Nauvoo.  At the conclusion of his story, the prophet sat silent for several minutes; then, placing his arm around his friend's shoulder, [he] announced for all to hear: "I prophesy, in the name of the Lord, that you -- Orrin Porter Rockwell -- so long as ye shall remain loyal and true to they faith, need fear no enemy.  Cut not thy hair and no bullet or blade can harm thee!" ... From this day forward through thirty-five violent years in which Rockwell encountered hostile Indians, desperadoes, and other characters on the western scene, he managed to avoid a single physical injury at the hands of another man (Schindler, pp. 101-102).
This anecdote tells you a lot about Port (as he was known to friends).  He was loyal (enough to spend almost a year in jail for protecting the prophet, who was his friend).  He was tough (almost too tough for a posse of the prophet's Life Guard, even after a year spent running from the law and starving in jail).  He was a legend in his own time.  Before we get too excited about Smith's prophecy, it should be noted that Rockwell did cut his hair once.  Many years after the prophecy, he encountered Don Carlos Smith's widow Agnes Coolbrith, who was bald in consequence of a recent bout with typhoid fever.  Rockwell, generous friend that he was, had his hair cut to make her a wig:
Porter wore his hair long, as he said the Prophet had told him that if he wore his hair long his enemies should not have the power over him neither should he be overcome by evil.  When he met Sister Smith he had no gold dust or money to give her, so he had had his hair cut to make her a wig and from that time he said that he could not control the desire for strong drink, nor the habit of swearing (Letter of Mrs. Elizabeth D. E. Roundy, quoted in Schindler, p. 220).
By modern LDS standards, Rockwell was undoubtedly a strange-looking Saint: a long-haired, hard drinking, swearing, gunslinging bear of a man.  I am pretty sure the BYU Testing Center would have forbidden him entrance, though I am willing to guess that people on the street might have taken him a little more seriously than they did me when I did my tour of duty as a missionary.  He certainly made an impression on Richard Burton (the famous nineteenth-century world traveler, not the modern actor):
Porter Rockwell was a man about fifty, tall and strong, with ample leather leggings overhanging his huge spurs, and the saw-handles of two revolvers peeping from his blouse.  His forehead was already a little bald, and he wore his long grizzly locks after the ancient fashion of the U.S., plaited and gathered up at the nape of the neck; his brow puckered with frowning wrinkles contrasted curiously with his cool determined grey eye, jolly red face, well touched up with "paint," and his laughing good-humoured mouth.  He had the manner of a jovial, reckless, devil-may-care English ruffian.  The officers called him Porter, and preferred him to the "slimy villains" who will drink with a man and then murder him.  After a little preliminary business about a stolen horse, all conducted on the amiable, he pulled out a dollar, and sent to the neighbouring distillery for a bottle of Valley Tan.  The aguardiente was smuggled in under cloth, as though we had been respectables in a Moslem country, and we were asked to join him in a "squar' drink," which means spirits without water.  The mode of drinking was peculiar.  Porter, after the preliminary sputation raised the glass with a cocked little finger to his lips, with the twinkle of the eye ejaculated "Wheat!" that is to say "good," and drained the tumbler to the bottom ...
Of these "squar' drinks" we had at least four, which, however, did not shake Mr. Rockwell's nerve, and then he sent out for more.  Meanwhile he told us his last adventure, how when ascending the kanyon he suddenly found himself covered by two long rifles; how he had thrown himself from his horse, drawn his revolver and crept behind a bush, and he had dared the enemy to come out and fight like men ... When he heard that I was preparing for California he gave me abundant good advice -- to carry a double-barrelled gun loaded with buckshot; to "keep my eyes skinned," especially in kanyons and ravines; to make at times a dark camp ... and never to trust to appearances in an Indian country ... I observed that, when thus speaking, Porter's eyes assumed the expression of an old mountaineer's, ever rolling as if set in quicksilver.  For the purpose of avoiding "White Indians," the worst of their kind, he advised me to shun the direct route, which he represented to about as fit for travelling as h-ll for a powder magazine" (Richard Burton, City of the Saints, quoted in Schindler, pp. 309-310).
Burton was not the only stranger impressed by Rockwell, and (frankly) there was much to admire about the Mormon Samson.  He survived the Missouri troubles and the Nauvoo disaster, managing to run successful businesses (a ferry service in Missouri and a tavern in Nauvoo, though Emma Smith evicted this establishment from the Smith home, where the prophet Joseph wanted to locate it).  He was Brigham Young's prairie scout and mountaineer.  He carried mail.  He played a key role in thwarting Johnson's army during the Utah War (not without some personal embarrassment: the first time he and some others tried to drive off the army's mules, they only succeeded in losing their own mounts).  He had another tavern at Point of the Mountain, and he was famous in Utah for his stock (horse and cattle).  He had a reputation for being at once honest (so that outsiders looked to him for advice, scouting expertise, and protection) and dangerous (so that he was implicated in several grisly deaths, like the botched assassination of the Aiken party and the mysterious beheading of an otherwise unknown Missourian).  As gangsters go, he was "all wheat" (as he would have said).

I grew up with immense reverence for the prophets Brigham Young and Joseph Smith.  They were heroes who could do no wrong; the crimes alleged against them were anti-Mormon lies.  Inevitably, this distorted picture of reality left me vulnerable to demonizing their less well-known associates, men like John D. Lee, Bill Hickman, and Porter Rockwell.  Today, I see the early LDS church as a mafia.  This is not really as black a mark against it as some might think: the government of Missouri that tried to crush it with mob violence was also a mafia (with different factions: remember Bleeding Kansas).  The American frontier was just not a nice place back in the day.  This does not mean that nothing good ever happened there, or that pioneers like Porter Rockwell were generally bad people.  But they were not really what we moderns would call civilized.  They lacked scruples that we consider basic; death was a constant reality for them, and killing a necessary part of life.  What would you do if you woke up one day and found yourself in danger of sudden death from ruthless strangers?  Would you think calmly to yourself, "Maybe I should move somewhere else, ditch my family and friends (with their weird religion which I believe heart and soul), and start over" or would you fight back?  Some early Mormons thought better of it and turned tail, no doubt.  Others fought back -- becoming "gentlemen of honor" just like the Italian mafiosi depicted by Marco Amenta.  Of these latter, some became renowned as despicable criminals (like Lee and Hickman), while others (like Rockwell) attained a kind of outlaw respectability.  Rockwell's strength was his honesty and integrity; in his own words (shouted to American vice president Schuyler Colfax when Rockwell was in his cups), "I never killed anyone who didn't need killing" (quoted in Schindler, p. 343).  Unlike Bill Hickman, Rockwell never turned state's evidence (becoming a snitch) or killed people for purely mercenary reasons (though some alleged that Joseph Smith at least rewarded his attempt on Boggs' life); he was the kind of mafioso who killed to defend life and honor (his own, and that of his close friends, who just happened to be mafia bosses).  Unlike John D. Lee, he never stooped to killing women and children (a circumstance which might owe something to luck as well as his character, to be punctilious; but facts are facts).  You might not agree with Rockwell, but you knew where he stood, and that he was totally committed.  In many ways, he is more admirable than either Joseph Smith (who was a philanderer and a liar, two things Rockwell never was) or Brigham Young (who was also a liar, and thus more of a coward than Rockwell: hanging Lee out to dry alone for the mistakes at Mountain Meadows despite promises of immunity was a dastardly thing).

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Modern Apocalypse

"Prophets of Doom."  History Channel, 2011.

As I prepare to hunt for a job puttering around like most academics, it is interesting to take a look at the big picture of what is going on in society.  The world as we know it is crashing, as it always has, only it is bigger now, so it falls harder.  I hope I can prepare myself to live in a world without all the things I depend on subconsciously.

I wish universities studied this stuff.  I feel like this is really what I am interested in.  What I really want to learn is how to live happily like the people in "less developed" economies, which are more sustainable than the cancerous, obese behemoth that is the imploding First World.  My research into antiquity is an attempt to get back to something better than modern civilization, without making the same mistakes that were made.  I want to return to the Bronze Age (or earlier), without being stupid the same way my ancestors were back then.

My journey into the past is also a journey into the future.  It is not a "restoration" (in the Mormon sense) really; it is more of a cautious reformation.  There is no Eden to return to.  But there is a purgatory before the modern hell, and right now that purgatory is looking like the place to build if you want to last.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

My Religion

I composed this statement in response to a series of questions posed by a Christian on one of the Mormon sites I frequent.

I see religion as a kind of poetry, an expression of human life that takes its form in gestures aimed at creating and preserving meaning.  For me, there is really no hard distinction between religion and other systems of culture that encompass entire lives: religion includes politics, economics, and all kinds of culture.  What is more, people are born into religions the same way they are born into language.  You can learn a new language, and you can take up a new religion, but traces of the old one will be with you always (even if you don't like it: I cannot get away from the fact that I was born into twentieth-century American English; in the same way, I cannot escape the fact that I was born and raised into twentieth-century Mormonism).  I think every religion, like every language, contains means for expressing human reality: as a medium of human expression, Mormonism is no truer or falser than Catholicism or Buddhism, just as English is no truer or falser than Spanish or Chinese.  They are different tools for accomplishing the same purpose.  Some languages come easier to some people than others, and some people prefer one to another: this is natural and good, and there is really nothing to be done about it.  That said, I don't think the world would be better (or even fundamentally different) if we all spoke the same language, or professed the same religion.  People would still be people, which means that some of us would use religion to express things that others would find offensive, and vice versa.  The world would be a lot more boring, too, in the same way that international airports are (with endless iterations of the same stores selling the same merchandise, muting the idiosyncratic at the expense of the universal as much as possible).  So I am actually glad that there are many different religions out there in the world: the ones I fear the most are those that see their mission as wiping out others.  That is like wanting to cut down the rainforest in order to plant lots of soybeans: it might be profitable short-term, but in the long run everybody loses.

With that in mind, let me offer my answers to your questions.

(1) Do you see yourself living Joseph Smith's restored Christianity?  Yes and no.  First for the negative.  After many years spent investigating early Christianity, I do not believe Smith (or any of the reformers over the centuries) has restored it.  More than that, I do not believe that it is something that can be restored.  I see Christianity as a bundle of competing movements that was never really united under one banner: historically, all of us claim Christ, but none of us owns him.

Now for the positive.  I grew up Mormon, which means that I grew up praying (alone and with my family), singing hymns, and reading the Bible (which I read through several times on my own as an adolescent, along with the additional holy books recognized by Mormons: the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants).  When I was about eleven years old, I had a powerful experience reading the Book of Mormon: I finished reading it the first time, prayed to know whether it was true or not, and had a strong inner witness: to me, this confirmed that Jesus was the Christ, and Joseph Smith was his prophet.  Since this experience, I have had a few more (including two years as a missionary in northern Spain) which have led me to conclude that my emotional witness was not indicative of objective reality.  Subjectively, though, it gave me moral strength to make decisions that have improved my life, while at the same time leaving me vulnerable to some bad decisions too (like the decision to hate sexuality, and to think that confessing every sexual experience to my local bishop would help me erase this indelible part of my human character).

As a result of my experiences with Mormonism and religion in general--the good, the bad, and the ugly--I do not think that any one religion is as good as its most fanatical followers claim.  I don't believe in absolute truth as something that can be expressed by human beings: we can allude to it, we can dance around it, but the moment any of us tries to define it, "amen to the priesthood or authority of that man" (from Doctrine and Covenants 121, one of my favorite Mormon scriptures).  But I do believe in "continuing revelation" (as Mormons say): I think that it is important to leave oneself open to new insight, no matter what its source.  Part of my personal experience growing up Mormon was embracing this aspect of the faith wholeheartedly: for me, Mormonism was never entirely restricted to the correlated, soul-destroying mush produced by LDS church headquarters.  If it had been, I would probably be more of an atheist than I currently am.  But the Mormons I grew up with were better than their leaders: they intuited the difference between rigid obedience to leaders and thoughtful membership in a faith community that nobody owns.  (Mormonism is free from corporate ownership the same way French is: despite attempts by controlling bodies to own and define the language, it exists organically outside definition.)  Also, I think there is something to the old Mormon doctrine that Lorenzo Snow expressed more or less as follows: "as man is, God once was, and as God is, man may yet become."  My study of religion has led me to conclude (with Xenophanes, the Greek philosopher-poet) that we all paint God in our own image (even when we try not to).  Others will disagree, and that is fine: I learn from their disagreement (and am enriched by it).  Since I still embrace these (and a few other) core principles of my early Mormonism, I still feel comfortable calling myself a Mormon.

(2) Is restored Christianity important to you?  Yes.  I have family and friends deep inside Mormonism ("died in the wool, true blue through and through"), and at all stages of disaffection.  The former see themselves as "restorationist Christians" and are quite committed to that position.  I don't want to cut them entirely (as I would if at this point I decided to sever formally all ties with the church).  More important, I still see myself as the same person who received a testimony of Joseph Smith at eleven years old.  I don't want my family to think that I am reneging on my commitment to them, and to the values that I learned from them and shared with them, in a very Mormon context.  And, to top things off, I still "speak" Mormon.  My instinctive way of looking at the world is Mormon, informed by experiences with other faiths that I am still assimilating (the way I am still learning Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Arabic), but Mormon nonetheless.  What is more, the Mormon I "speak" is (on my reading) an historical dialect of Christianity, in the restorationist tradition (which includes more movements than just Mormonism).

(3) Is restored Christianity important to the Mormon movement?  It is important to my family and friends.  This is a Mormon movement that matters to me.  I am not sure how important it is to the LDS church.  I used to think it was important, but then I went on a mission, attended BYU, and started understanding more things in General Conference.  Today, I see the LDS church leadership as ambiguous enemies: they haven't attacked me personally yet, but they certainly could, and they assault every ideological position of mine that they can (maligning me to my family as an evil apostate).  There was a time when I feared excommunication, but I have moved past that: if it happens, then I will do my best Martin Luther impression.

(4) Do you regard the Bible as just another phase that someone else went through, or is it something that you consider yourself to be answerable to?  This strikes me as an unfairly loaded question, setting up a false dichotomy.  The Bible for me is a collection of mythology.  As a source of personal ethics, some of it is really good, like Ecclesiastes (which is my personal favorite).  Some of it is OK, like the gospels (though I don't believe in miracles such as Jesus is supposed to have performed).  Some of it is pure crap, like Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and the more violent among the prophets.  As a window onto the human soul, it is all valuable, and we are all answerable for what we carry inside us, including the part of us that imagines and carries out crimes while giving God the "glory."  Thus, in my opinion, the Bible is really only as useful as the people who read it.  In the hands of literalistic, legalistic folk (such as currently rule at LDS church headquarters), it is dangerous.  In the hands of more sensitive folk, it is harmless and may even be helpful (just like other holy books, including the Book of Mormon, the Koran, the Dhammapada, etc.).

(5) Do you aspire to bringing yourself into alignment with the perspective of the New Testament, or is that phase of thinking something that is better left in the past?  I see the NT as containing different perspectives, with Peter disagreeing with Paul, and other writers taking mutually opposed stances whose harmonization is a later historical development.  How do I bring myself into harmony with something that lacks harmony?  Putting the question in context with some analogues, how would I bring myself into harmony with Shakespeare's Hamlet?  I could read it a lot, write essays about it, study it, and know a great deal about it, but in general the more I do these things the less I see the work as a univocal thing.  It is like the original draft of the US Constitution, full of compromises and unresolved tensions, which are interesting without being fundamentally harmonious (the way I use the word: Heraclitus would call it harmony).

(6) Have you got a rationale or philosophy or theology that you use to validate your position?  My philosophy is that I am open to anything that people want to share with me.  If I can understand and apply it with good results, then I make it a part of my life.  The paradigm through which I view truth is that of an ancient skeptic (think Sextus Empiricus), or cynic (Diogenes of Sinope).  Modern thinkers I like include David Hume and Nassim Taleb.  I am all about doubt.  I think the best insights come to those least married to presuppositions about the nature of reality.

(7)  Do you consider your personal outlook to be compatible with the larger Mormon outlook and official teaching?  I think it could be: modern Mormonism is largely incoherent, and could evolve in many directions, some of which might comfortably contain ideological positions like mine.  Right now, however, leadership is most definitely opposed to people like me.  Members are ambiguous, with some tolerant or even sympathetic toward positions like mine, and others decidedly hostile.  Others yet have never noticed that people like me exist.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Some interesting quotes from Postman's Technopoly.  The first quote is actually from C. S. Lewis (Screwtape Letters, x):
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of "Admin."  The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid "dens of crime" that Dickens loved to paint.  It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps.  In those we see its final result.  But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.  Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.
Part of my faith crisis was waking up to the realization that there is no such thing as an enlightened bureaucracy.  They all tell you they are wonderful, and they are all lying.  Some do more and more obvious harm than others, but all are harmful--especially if you believe the crap they always tell you about how they are saving the world.  If the world is saved, it will be at least as much in spite of bureaucracy as because of it (though I am sure any bureaucracy that survives will give itself credit as our savior, or--more insidiously--as his humble instrument).

The second quote is from Postman (85-86):
Bureaucracy has no intellectual, political, or moral theory--except for its implicit assumption that efficiency is the principal aim of all social institutions and that other goods are necessarily less worthy, if not irrelevant.  That is why John Stuart Mill thought bureaucracy a "tyranny" and C. S. Lewis identified it with Hell.  The transformation of bureaucracy from a set of techniques designed to serve social institutions to an autonomous meta-institution that largely serves itself came as a result of several developments in the mid- and late-nineteenth century: rapid industrial growth, improvements in transportation and communication, the extension of government into ever larger realms of public and business affairs, the increasing centralization of governmental structures.  To these were added, in the twentieth century, the information explosion and what we might call the "bureaucracy effect": as techniques for managing information became more necessary, expensive, and complex, the number of people and structures required to manage those techniques grew, and so did the amount of information generated by bureaucratic techniques.  This created the need for bureaucracies to manage and coordinate bureaucracies, then for additional structures and techniques to manage the bureaucracies that coordinated bureaucracies, and so on--until bureaucracy became, to borrow again Karl Kraus's comment on psychoanalysis, the disease for which it purported to be the cure.  Along the way, it ceased to be merely the servant of social institutions and became their master.  Bureaucracy now not only solves problems but creates them.  More important, it defines what our problems are--and they are always, in the bureaucratic view, problems of efficiency.  As Lewis suggests, this makes bureaucracies exceedingly dangerous, because though they were originally designed to process only technical information, they are now commonly employed to address problems of a moral, social, and political nature.  The bureaucracy of the nineteenth century was largely concerned with making transportation, industry, and the distribution of goods more efficient.  Technopoly's bureaucracy has broken loose from such restrictions and now claims sovereignty over all of society's affairs.
The single greatest problem with bureaucracy is that efficiency is not an unmixed blessing.  It inevitably creates fragility (as Nassim Taleb would say), rendering those who rely on it blind to important realities, realities that are inefficient.  (Or, as bureaucrat Boyd K. Packer would say, truths that are not very useful.)  Two more quotes from Postman (88-89):
The role of the expert is to concentrate on one field of knowledge, sift through all that is available, eliminate that which has no bearing on a problem, and use what is left to assist in solving a problem.  This process works fairly well in situations where only a technical solution is required and there is no conflict with human purposes--for example in space rocketry or the construction of a sewer system. It works less well in situations where technical requirements may conflict with human purposes, as in medicine or architecture.  And it is disastrous when applied to situations that cannot be solved by technical means and where efficiency is usually irrelevant, such as in education, law, family life, and problems of personal maladjustment.  I assume I do not need to convince the reader that there are no experts--there can be no experts--in child-rearing and lovemaking and friend-making.  All of this is a figment of the Technopolist's imagination, made plausible by the use of technical machinery [like fancy documents purporting to illustrate the one true family], without which the expert would be totally disarmed and exposed as an intruder and an ignoramus ... There is, for example, no test that can measure a person's intelligence.  Intelligence is a general term used to denote one's capacity to solve real-life problems in a variety of novel contexts.  It is acknowledged by everyone except experts that each person varies greatly in such capacities, from consistently effective to consistently ineffective, depending on the kinds of problems requiring solution.  If, however, we are made to believe that a test can reveal precisely the quantity of intelligence a person has, then, for all institutional purposes, a score on a test becomes his or her intelligence.  The test transforms an abstract and multifaceted meaning into a technical and exact term that leaves out everything of importance.  One might even say that an intelligence test is a tale told by an expert, signifying nothing.
Nonetheless, the expert relies on our believing in the reality of technical machinery, which means we will reify the answers generated by the machinery.  We come to believe that our score is our intelligence, or our capacity for creativity or love or pain.  We come to believe that the results of opinion polls are what people believe, as if our beliefs can be encapsulated in such sentences as "I approve" and "I disapprove."
I see this nonsense playing out all the time in different places.  In education, we mistake scores for learning (and the ability to learn).  In church, we mistake adherence to arbitrary (and even harmful) rules for piety.  In government and business, we mistake sound-bytes for sound policy, and assume that the talking suits whose companies we support actually know what the heck they are doing because they get up on time, clean up nicely, and diligently show us charts decorated with impressive technical jargon.  Everywhere, we trust people to know stuff that they don't really know, even when their incompetence becomes truly dangerous, destroying our ability to function as individuals and as a society.  How am I supposed to become intellectually competent if my chief aim is to get good scores on tests, pleasing masters, colleagues, and students?  How I am supposed to become morally competent if every decision I make has to pass muster with an incoherent book of rules compiled by bureaucrats in Salt Lake City (or Colorado City, or Canterbury, or Rome, or any other major religious center)?  How am I supposed to be financially and politically capable if my actionable resources can be appropriated on a moment's notice to save stupid businesses lucky enough to be "too big to fail"?  In a world where I exist merely as an individual consumer--helpless, needy, and stupid--how am I supposed to do anything worth doing at all?

The worst part of my faith crisis has been my inability to talk coherently about this aspect of it.  I express a disillusion with technology in general, and immediately others (not just Mormons) rush in with their pet technical solution to my lack of faith.

"Yes!  It can be really frustrating dealing with idiots like George Bush and his henchmen.  Vote for Obama and this will all get better ... The reason it isn't better yet is that the evil Republicans still have power."  [If you want the Republican version of this, just change a few words, swapping Obama for Bush, and vice versa, and referencing evil Democrats.]

"Yes!  The church comes with all kinds of people.  Sometimes, inexplicably, they speak as men when we all think that they are speaking for God.  We have to learn to ignore this, have faith that it will all turn out right, and keep exercising our religious freedom to call other people to repentance."

"Yes!  It can be really frustrating dealing with religious bigots like Boyd Packer and his henchmen.  Come to my church and this will all get better ... The reason it isn't better yet is that you are still holding on to icky Mormon ideas instead of embracing true Christianity." [Imagine the face of the Reverend Jeffress here, and maybe someone like Ted Haggard for good measure].

"Yes!  Being an academic is hard sometimes.  Maybe if you went to another workshop, or published a paper, or applied for your 300th job, or worked more diligently on your dissertation, you wouldn't be in this mess."

I have spent much of my life being broken--not politically savvy enough, or righteous enough, or smart enough, or diligent enough, or whatever.  After fifteen years (starting in adolescence, when I became aware of other people as more than entertainment), I am still broken.  But the stupid bureaucracies that push me all over the place are broken too.  They think they know what they are doing.  They think they are wise.  They think they righteous.  They think they deserve the right to put me in my place, humbly enslaving me to the greater good that they represent (but can never represent intelligibly, for some reason: pond scum like me just doesn't get it, I guess).  The difference between them and me, as I see it, is that I admit my limits and refuse to go past them, while they don't.  I try to be morally responsible.  They don't.  I answer for my mistakes.  They don't answer for theirs.  I am interested in changing things in fundamental ways, so that I don't have to rely on them all the time (though I have nothing against their going on without me).  The only change that they welcome is the one that puts them in control of the status quo, where I am comfortably stuck under their thumb.  Their heaven on earth is my hell.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Living on the Dole

Neil Postman.  Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.  New York: Vintage, 1992.  ISBN: 0679745408.

Berndt Heinrich.  A Year in the Maine Woods.  Da Capo, 1995.  ISBN: 0201489392.

Postman writes about the demise of old human culture (the art of living well), and the rise of a new one (the art of manipulating hyper-specialized tools in exchange for increasingly complex goods and services from other tool-users, goods and services so complex that no individual can provide them for himself).  Heinrich offers an interesting paradox: a new man (the hyper-specialized professor of biology) who nevertheless manages to live well in the old style, largely because he lives simply.

In his book, Heinrich tells how he went out into the Maine woods, built a log cabin, and managed to thrive without regular access to many of the amenities of Postman's technopoly (amenities like running water, the indoor toilet, and the refrigerator).  The modern Thoreau did not cut himself off entirely from society: he installed a phone in a friend's outhouse, and he made regular visits to less technologically unburdened people around him, but his experiment is still impressive.  He made his own food, keeping an eternal stew on the stove: as long as he boiled it once each day, bacteria never ruined it, and thus he required no refrigerator.  He gathered water each day from a spring nearby.  (In modern communities suffering from water shortage, e.g. Western cities like Las Vegas, he recommends cutting off easy individual access to water, requiring people to travel and get their own: the farther they travel, the less extra, unnecessary water they will be willing to bring back.)  His daily entertainment came from cutting wood (for the stove), running, visiting neighbors (or receiving visits from family members and students), and (especially) watching native wildlife (which he describes in great detail throughout the book, as you expect a good biologist to do).  He did not have a television or Internet.  He conducted numerous experiments, some personal (like his attempt to calculate the moon's orbit, a quantity known to science but unknown to him personally) and some professional (his original excuse for this excursion was a desire to see how ravens behave in the wild: he published his findings for scientists).  He was never afraid to get dirty--trapping rodents (which he then fed to ravens or cooked and consumed himself), tasting insects (which were always invading his little home: the strangest invaders were so-called "cluster flies," giant black flies that gathered in the crevices of the cabin over winter and came out in hordes every time it got warm), and mucking around in the outdoors (where he regularly collected roadkill and dead farm animals to feed his ravens).

Reading Heinrich's experience reminded me of Postman, largely because Heinrich strikes me as one of those happy moderns least affected by the diseases of modern civilization that Postman talks about.  At the end of the day, Heinrich knows how to take care of himself better than most people.  He has practical know-how that is increasingly rare in modern life, which is supposed to work better the less each individual knows about doing for himself, and the more he knows about serving society (with increasingly hyper-specialized skills).  Heinrich also has remarkable psychological contentment--though he alludes offhand to his ex-wife (who presumably wasn't down with moving off into the wilderness), and wood-madness (what happens when you live too long as a forest hermit away from other people).  Unlike many people, he is not worried about business or politics: Wall Street and Washington are far from his consciousness, whether as sources of goodies to harvest or sins to protest (chief among these the withholding of goodies).  If the economy tanks, his woodland home will still be there, and he will still be able to live in it.  He is not "on the dole" with the rest of modern civilization, sucking the teat of the giant behemoth that is Society (supply-and-demand, proletariat and bourgeois, presided over by the divine Hand of Adam Smith or the corporate Consciousness of Karl Marx).

It strikes me that much of modern society lives "on the dole."  Employed or not, all of us depend on others to do for us in really basic ways (e.g. providing access to food, shelter, and clean clothing).  Increasingly, this dependence is not a luxury (the way it often has been throughout history), but an expectation: we even get some people talking about it as a "right" (which seems idiotic to me).  Confronted with problems, we demand that specialists come in and save us from life (whether unpredictable forces of nature, our own incompetence, or the incompetence of someone else near us).  We throw tantrums (occupying Wall Street, joining the Tea Party) instead of fixing the root of the problem (our individual attitude and aptitude).  Our established organizations of social control (government, schools, churches, businesses) play to our infantilism, cultivating citizens who vote for suck-ups (who in turn promise them the world on a silver platter), students who care more about getting ahead temporarily than actually learning anything about real life (that might be hard, not to mention pay small short-term dividends), worshipers who think that piety is doing whatever some guru (or book written by gurus) says, and customers who are supposed to sit back and be "needy" (since Keynesians value consumption over production).  The result is that we are always feeling helpless, frustrated, and worried.  No one likes living on the dole, whether that means being a wage-slave (some of whom make millions) or a homeless bum.  Better to live in a wilderness with no amenities.

A final thought.  Heinrich is just like us modern civilized folk in many respects: he uses a lot of the same technology, and relies on other people to help him with things he cannot provide.  The difference, as I see it, is that he engages his own life much more continuously and thoughtfully than we do.  He asks for help with problems that he has already attempted to solve on his own, problems that many of us would never recognize because we have already called specialists in to take care of everything without doing our own diagnosis.  We sit around passively, waiting for life to happen to us (and complaining when it happens badly).  Heinrich goes out to meet it.  We never know what we are capable of, and we feel frustrated, alienated from ourselves (and one another), and helpless.  Heinrich sees what he can do every day, and is empowered even by failure (which for someone like him is a kind of learning).  We are helpless in the hands of our tools, which have created a culture that controls us.  Heinrich is the master of his tools, which he uses to make culture.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Useless Truth

Philip Jenkins.  The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died.  New York: Harper Collins, 2008.  ISBN: 9780061472800.

While at BYU, I noted a peculiar fascination with Greek Orthodoxy among some of the faculty with interest in early Christianity.  One of my professors in particular mentioned that if he were not Mormon, he would be Orthodox.  The Orthodox tradition was attractive for its connection to ancient Greek Christianity (or better, Christianities), the closest thing(s) to authentic primitive Christianity that objective-minded historians can find.

Jenkins tells the story of the Greek Christians, and of other Christians outside the western European tradition (though he refers freely to that tradition to illustrate his narrative).  Here you will find the story of ancient Christians in Syria, Egypt, Persia, India, and China, not to mention Asia Minor (modern Turkey).  You will find Nestorians, Monophysites alongside more exotic (and independent) heretics, like the Manichaeans and (inevitably) the Muslims.  You will learn how the Christians conquered the East, and lost it all.  You will be forced to confront how the prosperity gospel (expressed in scriptures like Deuteronomy 28 and Mosiah 2:22) does not work, as you see covenant people suffer the almost complete dissolution of their culture--in spite of every promise, in spite of every revelation, in spite of every miracle.  You will find stories of religious genocide, occurring still in relatively modern times (e.g. the annihilation of millions of Greeks and Armenians by Turks in the early twentieth century).  You will see the best faces of religion (the scholar, the humanitarian, the pillar of society), and the worst (the holy warrior, the sectarian, the scourge of God).  You will see the power of chance, which offered the eastern Christians safety (with the possibility of a Mongol alliance against the Muslim powers) and then snatched it away, perhaps forever (when powerful Mongol chieftains converted to Islam).  Notice that persecution of the Other is a non-denominational doctrine: Christians brought it to the Muslims, and vice versa.  Religion knows how to be kind, and how to be cruel, regardless of who is in charge or what they claim to believe.

The best part of the book, from my perspective, is the very end, where Jenkins talks about the need in contemporary Christian thought for a theology of defeat, failure, and disaster.  How do we deal with the failure of God?  How do we process divine indifference to prayer, to sacrifice, to basic human decency?  Historically, we tend to ignore it, an ignorance that impoverishes our perspective on reality, and cheapens our faith (leaving people like me loathe to believe anything any religious leader may say).  We dismiss the losers as apostates, has-beens, divine rejects.  Their stories go untold.  Their thoughts are forgotten.  Their experiences, the good and the bitter, teach us nothing.  Jenkins calls us to repentance (pp. 261-262):

Christians believe that God speaks through history; and only by knowing that history can we hope to interpret momentous events like the Japanese persecutions [which annihilated Catholicism in early modern Japan] and the fall of the Asian churches.  Yet Christians have systematically forgotten or ignored so very much of their own history that it is scarcely surprising that they encounter only a deafening silence.  Losing the ancient churches is one thing, but losing their memory and experience so utterly is a disaster scarcely less damaging.  To break the silence, we need to recover those memories, to restore that history.  To borrow the title of one of Charles Olson's great poems: the chain of memory is resurrection.

In a nutshell, modern, western Christianity suffers from the same problem that plagues modern LDS Mormonism: an inability to deal productively with its faith history, a history which is full of what Boyd K. Packer might call useless truth.  But that truth is not useless.  That truth is what points us toward new revelation, showing us problems that we have failed to address adequately.  That truth is what keeps us humble, showing us that we do not know the mind of God, that we are (in fact) extremely ignorant of any guiding principle at the helm of the universe.  We have to preserve that truth, telling the "faith-destroying" stories of heartbreak and disaster (like what really happened at Mountain Meadows, or the Council of Nicaea, or the Battle of Ankara, or the Latin sack of Constantinople, or the modern Turkish "cleansing" of Smyrna).  We cannot pretend that uncomfortable truth does not exist without endangering our souls, the souls of our children, and the very heart and soul of our entire community.  Whether you are Mormon, Christian, both, or something else, lying for the Lord is bad.  Ignoring for the Lord is bad, too.  I cannot lie, and I will not ignore.  To do so would be to go against everything that I stand for as a moral human being, as a Mormon and a Christian.

Truth is healing.  "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).  It sets us free from pretending, free from the fear that something unknown "out there" may take away the inner strength that keeps us sane.  We ignore and abjure it at our peril, especially when it tells us things that we do not want to know, showing us where our puny efforts to control reality break down.  The more we harden ourselves against useless truth today, the worse we are going to feel tomorrow, when it is inevitably shouted down at us from the housetops.  I cannot resist it any more, and that is why I am what I am--estranged from my faith community, without a secure job that I might have had, and generally disillusioned with "faithful" attempts by some religious to obfuscate and deny real suffering (my own and that of other people).  Like better men before me, I come to you now, Internet world, "from the back of a broken dream," simultaneously shattered and inspired by my personal encounter with useless truth.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Canary in the Mine

Boyd J. Petersen.  Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life.  Kofford, 2002.  ISBN: 1589580206.

Martha Beck.  Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith.  Crown, 2005.  ISBN: 0307335992.

Hugh Nibley.  "The Roman Games as the Survival of an Archaic Year Cult." PhD dissertation.  University of California at Berkeley, 1938.

I first encountered Hugh Nibley when I was about sixteen years old.  Making my way through my parents' library looking for something substantial to devour, I came upon An Approach to the Book of Mormon, and was immediately fascinated.  Like many of the groupies I encountered later at BYU, I too succumbed to the spell of exotic historical narratives, numerous foreign languages, and professorial tone, buttressed with crowds of dense footnotes.  My worship reached its zenith when I read Approaching Zion and Temple and Cosmos, which I still regard as some of Nibley's best work (even if it is not perfect, by any means).

The hardest thing for me to give up as a missionary was my addiction to printed matter, an addiction which Nibley fed (not just with his own material: he also pointed me towards other sources of information about the ancient world).  I missed his wide perspective in the mission field, especially when those around me (leaders and fellow missionaries) seemed much more narrowly focused, reducing the gospel to cheap kitsch that could be marketed door to door in easy soundbytes.  I knew they meant well, but it seemed to me even then that we were prostituting the kingdom of God, selling it with the same kind of tactics (and sales meetings) that other people use to sell vacuum cleaners or sleazy magazines.  One of many pleasures that came with the end of my mission was the freedom to look at the gospel from a non-sales perspective.  Eternal salvation is not something decided by how fast two young men walk, how diligently they brush their teeth or shine their shoes, or how widely they smile when you come to the door to tell them, for the umpteenth time, that you really aren't interested in another chat about baptism.  Fed up with being told that the life and death of other people depended on my personal hygiene (and their knee-jerk reaction thereto), I rushed happily back to BYU, and picked up with Nibley where I had left off (somewhere in The World and the Prophets).

Ironically, it was at BYU that the first cracks in my idol started to appear.  I encountered several professors whom I respected very much, and learned that not all of them were ardent Nibley fans.  That gave me pause.  Another wrench in the works was that I began learning more about his personal life, which I was actively assimilating as a guide for my own.  I took pride in spending no time (or hardly any) socializing, preferring to remain holed up in the library working.  I did not date (until my last year as an undergraduate).  I did not have a job.  I studied, ate, worked out, and slept.  This worked pretty well for me: I got excellent marks in all my classes, and avoided the pitfalls of dating in Provo (like having to consider marrying a girl after you have taken her out twice).  I also avoided spending money that I didn't have (and wasn't likely to get, given that my idol spent most of his life as poor as a churchmouse).  Then, as so often happens, life intervened and busted up my dream of Mormon scholarly perfection.  Things started innocently enough, with Nibley's funeral in the old Provo Tabernacle (before it burned down).  Naturally, I attended (and sat up very high in the gallery: I love those old pioneer churches in Utah; they have much more character than the modern LDS buildings).  In the midst of all the passionate eulogies, which were generally full of praise and admiration (as I would expect), there was some mention made of Nibley's wayward daughter, Martha, who was not welcome in the family.  Having read Petersen's book (above), I knew a little about her: she had accused her father of sexually molesting her, an accusation that none of her family members supported.  Of course I thought she was nuts.  Her accusation rested on memory recovery techniques that I knew to be shady (I had done my research!), and, besides, no one as perfect as Hugh Nibley would give up something as wonderful as the gospel to waste time torturing a little girl, his own little girl.  It was ridiculous.

Fast forward a little.  I am working closely with a Nibley acolyte in the BYU faculty, trying to piece together a commentary on the New Testament that will be at once an academic tour-de-force and a solid bit of Mormon apologetics.  As often happens, my mentor's discourse turns to reminiscences of the Great Man (Nibley), whose daughter went crazy at Harvard and came back with all these incomprehensible allegations.  In passing, my mentor mentions that he and other groupies used to hang out regularly at the Nibleys' little house in downtown Provo.  I have seen the house.  It is pretty tiny.  I picture it full of people, coming and going all the time, and books stacked floor to ceiling (as it has been described by witnesses like Petersen).  I think about Petersen's account of the lack of amenities in the house, how the Nibleys moved in without any furniture (literally), and how the Great Man would sometimes throw a tent in his car, pile in the kids, and go camping impromptu in the nearby canyons.  In Petersen's account, this life seemed idyllic and perfect, just the kind of thing I would do with my eight kids when I was living in a tiny house in Provo, playing the role of the Lord's Apologist.  But what if it wasn't all fun and games for everyone involved?  What if having a father who worked all the time, except when he was stuffing your tiny house full of books and strangers or taking you off into the howling wilderness, wasn't as much fun as I thought?

Petersen's book contained the seeds of my questions, pointing out the extremely awkward relationship between Hugh and his mother, for example, and the fact that Hugh never related well to his children once they ceased being babies.  Hugh was a loner, like I was shaping up to be, a workaholic, a war veteran who suffered from PTSD, an awkward lover (who married his much younger wife almost on a dare, according to the family legend preserved by Petersen, after his first love refused him), and basically kind of crazy.  None of this cancelled his brilliance, or made me admire his work less, but it did give me pause, especially when I accidentally found myself courting a young woman and contemplating marriage.  What if she didn't want to live in a dump with eight kids while I worked all the time, or wandered off into the wilderness?  Was it really fair of me to ask this kind of commitment?  In patterning my own life after that of the Great Man, what was I really signing on for?  I admit that I did not really know.  But I began to wonder.

Fast forward some more, to graduate school.  Here, the intellectual doubts my professors had expressed about Nibley came to a head, when I read his PhD thesis myself (listed above) in search of some ideas for what paths I might pursue.  While there was no denying that Nibley was incredibly well-read, there was also no getting around the fact that my professors' most telling criticisms stuck.  Stripped of all its baggage (fancy foreign words and dense footnotes), Nibley's thesis was pretty dodgy: there are records of many ancient peoples holding ceremonies to usher in the new year; the Romans may have had one too (though their earliest religious calendars extant don't attest a single ritual occasion with all of the events that Nibley finds characteristic of year ceremonies); all these ancient year ceremonies (the imaginary Roman one too) may descend from the earliest, most ancient year ceremony of them all.  I realized that I could use this kind of logic to write a thesis about Orlando, Florida, as the center of an ancient pilgrimage ritual (showing features similar to other pilgrimage centers like Santiago de Compostela, Mecca, or Jerusalem).  At what point do historical parallels (or imaginary historical parallels) become meaningful?  Do rituals really descend consciously from one another?  Does the same kind of behavior never spontaneously crop up in two or more different places, just because people are people?  The Nibley spell was broken.

Losing my idol was part of the faith crisis that hit me full force in graduate school (though it had really been building ever since I became academically interested in religion: you cannot bring critical thinking to something that does not bear scrutiny without asking for trouble).  Recently, I happened across Martha's book in a local library and decided to give it a read.  Having heard both sides of the story now--Martha's (as told by herself) and her family's (as told by Boyd Petersen)--I have some thoughts to offer.

First, I do not know what exactly to conclude about the allegations of sexual abuse.  In Nibley's defense, no one else in the family accuses him (though Martha claims that her mother was initially willing to admit his guilt).  In Martha's defense, I do not think that her memories are entirely false.  I have some personal experience with victims of sexual abuse, and the story she tells rings true enough that I cannot dismiss it as pure fabrication.  (There is the vaginal scarring to consider, as well.)  I tend to suspect that her family may be right in putting the blame for the actual assault off onto someone else, perhaps another man in the family circle (which Nibley's apologetic work extended to include a lot of interlopers).  Nibley's awkwardness as a father, and his failure to defend Martha, might then account for her "remembering" him later as the perpetrator.  Or not.  I do not presume to know either way.

Second, the Nibley family was really dysfunctional.  The idyllic picture painted by Boyd Petersen omits a lot of crap: the dirty diapers littering the floor, the mother abandoned to her fate--lying in bed and crying all day while her husband plays with Latin, Greek, and ancient Egyptian.  Martha says her mother admitted being a victim of sexual abuse, and believes that Hugh's mother abused him.  I lack the facts to come down firmly on either side, but it does seem hard not to conclude that all has not been well with the Nibleys.  This is nothing for them to be ashamed of, really.  It is just the way the cookie crumbles, sometimes.  My life hasn't been all teddy bears and rainbows, either, and others have suffered worse than I or the Nibleys.

Finally, Nibley's position as LDS Apologist in Chief drove him crazier than he otherwise would have been.  The guy had an overbearing mom (who might have abused him).  He fought in a war before we knew what PTSD was, and never received any therapy.  On top of all this, chance put him in charge of defending the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.  As a result of his heroic efforts in this impossible war of words, a war that cannot be won, he was constantly harried by fanboys (like I would have been had the situation presented itself), and suffered at least one nervous breakdown (speaking with Louis Midgely before an audience of BYU students).  A lot of his apologetic work puts the cart before the horse, assuming a theory to be true (e.g. the Mormon gospel is really ancient) and then finding evidence to back this assumption up (ancient records contain things that vaguely resemble the Mormon gospel!).  He was not always careful to allow for the fact that he might be wrong.  (Consider, for example, his overly hasty dismissal of the evidence that Joseph Smith was convicted of glass-looking in 1826.)

Today, I still enjoy reading Hugh Nibley.  His satire is great, and I think the idea he had of Mormonism is better than many (including the one I ended up serving for the greater part of my mission).  But I do not aim any more to be the person he was.  I am not an apologist.  I am not a defender of the faith.  Any faith worth trusting can look after itself.  It doesn't need me to drive myself and those around me crazy in order to preserve it.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Early American Dreams

Daniel J. Boorstin.  The Americans: The Colonial Experience.  New York: Vintage, 1964.  ISBN: 0394705130.

This book tells the story of the early European settlers in the thirteen British colonies that eventually became the United States.  Four things stood out to me as I went through the book.

(1) Americans are historically individualists.  Historically, we tend toward an egalitarian view of the world, even as this view becomes more and more a relic of realities that exist no more.  It was much truer back in the day that Boorstin describes, when there was no professional American army, and European barriers of caste and culture carried little or no meaning on this side of the pond.  (Everyone had to know a little about farming, medicine, and fighting.  We didn't have the means or the interest to separate professionals into rigid castes governed by outdated rules that didn't work at all on the wild frontier of Western civilization.)  Over and over again, Boorstin comes back to the same ideal early American, a jack of all trades who never let his book-learning get in the way of practical experience.  Americans were amateur farmers (having plenty of land to experiment with and no reason to husband it as intensively as their European counterparts), amateur doctors (having plenty of disease to look after, little formal medical schooling to speak of, and no ironclad respect for book learned expertise), amateur scientists (having plenty of new flora and fauna to classify, not to mention geographical discoveries to make), amateur priests (especially in areas where multiple sects existed), and amateur warriors (since they were constantly called on to defend themselves and their families at a moment's notice from Indian attacks).

Reading this book helped me see how, in a certain way, the moral attitude that I have adopted (more like stumbled into)--and tried only too imperfectly to implement over the course of my life so far--is historically American.  I don't like being trapped in a rigid profession, with non-negotiable rules and a fixed hierarchy (of practitioners and of knowledge).  I tend to think that such professions are largely bullcrap, no matter who makes them.  Politicians, professionals, businessmen, and clergy all sound remarkably similar when you strip away the particulars of their speech and look at the generalities: "We are God's gift to the world.  Pay us or risk losing everything worth anything in life.  There is no happiness without conformity to our rules.  Too bad they don't work out for all of you as well as they do for us: God must not like you as much."  Such professions exist to serve values that I find tendentious, artificially narrow, and (ultimately) dangerous.  Most of the time, they make a point of avoiding issues that I find important (like integrity, sustainability, and quality), passing the buck for difficult decisions on to some nebulous higher authority (God, the common weal, or some lesser avatar, e.g. the almighty dollar or a charismatic CEO) whose humble agent (some bureaucrat) has the unfortunate duty of serving the public by playing the role of Divine Inquisitor (or mafia enforcer: pick your own evil metaphor).

(2) Americans are historically idealists.  Many of the first American colonists were religious zealots looking for a place to be the city on the hill that they felt Christ was calling them to be.  They were often seriously, dangerously nutty.  Puritans tortured and killed people who didn't fit the mold that their standard of righteousness demanded.  Some of their victims were Quakers, who were as adamant about courting martyrdom as any Puritan was about dishing it out.  Seriously, what do you do with someone who keeps coming back to your settlement begging that you either accept his (or her) preaching, or at least have the decency to kill the messenger?  Not having learned that passive non-interest is the most effective way to deal crazy Bible-thumpers, the Puritans became the cruel partisan establishment that they had fled.  The persecuted were reinvented as persecutors (and the groundwork was laid for myths like those in the Book of Mormon, which talks a lot about rival preachers with a penchant for going to unreasonably hostile villages where they and their outnumbered followers run the risk of being killed).  Of course, American idealism had positive expressions as well.  Rhode Island was a haven of tolerance for those non-martyrs unable to make it in Massachusetts.  Pennsylvania too welcomed members of many different faiths, who managed to get along with each other remarkably well.  Virginia cultivated a relaxed, practical attitude to religion that ultimately nourished the Deism of several original Founding Fathers (e.g. Thomas Jefferson).  In the end, Congregationalist Puritan craziness backfired, and the sect ultimately became much more practical (eventually giving birth to Unitarianism in the nineteenth century!).  Ironically, the American Quakers became mired in the very kind of narrow dogmatism that their creed explicitly rejects, leading them to a cultural dead end from which they are still trying to resurrect the original divine spark recognized by George Fox.

I am definitely an idealist.  I believe in truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  I dislike lies.  I dislike compromise.  I dislike all the dirty, messy realities that inevitably come up when people organize and treat with each other in official, officious ways.  But my faith crisis has taught me to tone it down.  There is a place for compromise.  There is a place for letting sleeping dogs lie.  And there is even a place for lying (as the nun hiding Jews from the Nazis would know).  But it is really too bad, because I would like to have everything out there in the open.

(3) Americans are historically naive.  The first Americans had all kinds of crazy ideas about life that did not really pan out as advertised.  We believed that we would establish a religious utopia: instead, we have a secular republic (which is in some ways, many ways, a much better thing).  We believed in our European way of life; we thought we were doing the savage wilderness a favor by trying to civilize it.  Even if we were, it was definitely not the kind of favor we thought we were doing it, since our Greek gift of civilization brought a lot of bad stuff (e.g. smallpox) whose real import escaped us entirely.  In many ways, our history reads as a continuous series of brilliant ideas that imagine heaven (utopia, the American dream) only to end up raising hell (civil wars, slavery, industrialization, globalization, Wall Street).

(4) Americans respond to circumstances, valuing empirical functionality over theoretical perfection.  The saving grace of our naivete historically has been that it comes with a healthy dose of practical skepticism.  We start with pie-in-the-sky, but when this fails to materialize, we change the game-plan.  We learn from our mistakes.  When the Indians showed us new ways to raise crops, treat illness, and wage war, we learned (and to this day, many of us still think of fighting as a life-and-death struggle between free men, rather than some kind of organized game for noblemen and professional mercenaries; we still prefer Cincinnatus over Caesar, at least in our mythology).  This is the principle of continuing revelation in Mormonism, and it is an important part of my personal creed as a human being (and an American too).      

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Heretical Testimony

I know that I do not know very much, and that I doubt pretty much everything I think I know.

I know that absolute truth is dangerous, and that it makes no sense to me.

I know that reality is out there, that it is larger and more complicated than I can ever perfectly understand.  I don't know if it has a name by which it refers to itself.  I doubt that it does.

I know that theory without practice is bad, and faith without works is dead.  I believe in continuing revelation.

I know that myth is a permanent fixture in the human landscape: we all tell stories, all the time.  I know that I cannot believe in the absolute, literal truth of any one of our stories.  By the same token, I do not think that any of them is absolutely false.

I know that Jesus Christ is as real as Santa Claus (or Saint Nicholas).  I know that Joseph Smith spoke for God as much as Martin Luther did.

I know that organized religion does a lot of good in the world.  I know that it also does a lot of bad.  I know that I cannot put complete trust in any group of people: every corporation is a mafia; every mafia makes some really terrible decisions.  Some mafias are better than others, but that does not mean that any of them deserves uncritical loyalty.  I respect them (and myself) too much to give them what they do not deserve.

I know that I was born a Mormon, and that I remain a Mormon (even if I choose to add prefixes or caveats: these just confirm the fact that the leopard cannot change his spots).  As I cannot delete or deny my Mormonness by word play, so the authorities of the LDS church cannot: after twenty years, I am a member of the flock whether the shepherds want me or not.  I wish they did not feel threatened by people like me.  I wish I did not feel threatened by them.  Maybe one day we can all get along.


Flogging Molly. "Screaming at the Wailing Wall." Borstal Beat Records, 2004.

Here is a musical prayer that neatly summarizes my study on terrorism.

So, God, how come every wrong's been done?
With deals no Christ should allow
Once the communist now the terrorist
With blood as thick as yours
Now a caravan of clouds
Warns us all of winter showers
Then rattle comes the rain
With each bullet, it screams your name

So how come this gatherin' storm
Pours little on the truth?
Where the smokin' gun's a familiar
song let loose
With the bombed out cars
Come the falling stars
From a heaven we'll never know
And the nameless names
On the misspelled graves grow tall
We're still screamin' at the Wailing Wall

I'll liberate your peoples' fate
Spoke the Burnin' Bush
But the songs of beasts
Grow with oil soaked teeth
Their dollar is mighty and true
Now the eagle soars the sky
Over refugee and child
And to all there is no end
Another day in perfect Hell

So how come this gatherin' storm
Pours little on the truth?
Where the smokin' gun's a familiar
song let loose

All Hail!

Now a caravan of clouds
Warns us all of deadly showers
Then a-rattle comes the rain
With each bullet, it screams your name

So how come this gatherin' storm
Pours little on the truth?
Where the smokin' gun's a familiar
song let loose
With the bombed out cars
Come the falling stars
From a heaven we'll never know
And the nameless names
On the misspelled graves grow tall
We're still screamin' at the Wailing Wall

Oh I'll liberate your peoples' fate
As we scream at the wailing wall

I think this song makes a fair bid to express all the irony, suffering, and idealism that characterize the so-called War on Terror on all its fronts.  God speaks.  His servants obey, and we keep waiting for the ensuing Armageddon to induce a glorious Millennium of peace and prosperity.  Meantime, all hell breaks loose, over and over again, causing some of us to question our ideals that are too high to admit any compromise. 

Violence and Fragility, Summarized

Here is a metaphor that occurred to me as I finished my last post.

Violence is to the body politic what inflammation is to the body.  In critical moments, it may save us from acute danger, but as a chronic condition it is utterly ruinous.

Violence and Fragility

This represents a continuation of my thoughts about terrorist violence.

Violence is a bad long-term solution to moral problems because it creates more trouble than it solves, eventually doing injury to the cause that it is invoked to protect.  (Despite the fact that it existed nominally to protect Irish Catholics from Protestant violence, the IRA ends up being responsible for more Irish Catholic deaths than any other organization in Ireland, North or South: read Shanahan's book for references.)  But the real problem is something different.

When do people get violent?  Is it not when they have run out of other options, when they are "backed into a corner" (as the saying goes)?  One thing that holds true across all of the terrorist groups I have looked at (Muslim zealots, Basque and Irish nationalists) is that they feel trapped: they are "oppressed" by powers to which the only sane response (in their eyes) is violence (up to and including suicide, whether by detonating themselves in public or going on hunger strikes in prison).  The vision that gives meaning to the life of a terrorist gives him freedom (to think, to find meaning in life), but that freedom comes at a terrible cost, because it is inherently fragile.  It depends on other people having feelings that they may not (and in the case of modern terrorists, do not) have.  It demands validation that history appears very loathe to give (as the overwhelming majority of Muslims, Irish, and Basques continue to reject the visions of utopia that their less inhibited comrades proclaim).  The fanatics, inspired with the holy zeal of absolute truth, cannot admit this.  Even if they do, they promptly cast themselves as prophets who will "lead the way" in spite of their people's backsliding ways.  If enough of us play the bloody hero, they seem to think, surely the cause of Allah will prosper, and the nations of Euskadi and Ireland will shake off Britain and Spain to become heaven on earth.

As for those who actively oppose the terrorists, they are pond scum, orcs with no real motivation backing up the mindless cruelty they inflict on true Muslims, Irish Catholics, and Basques.  You don't treat with pond scum.  You don't compromise.  You do whatever it takes to get the orcs off your land and out of your life.  If that means blowing up some of their ill-favored children (or the children of others too blind to see them for the irreparable cancer that they are), well then, so be it. 

There is an important common thread here between terrorist reasoning and the ongoing financial collapse of the Western world.  Banks are failing because the way we do business in a modern world is too efficient: there is only one true way to do things, the cheapest way that maximizes profit.  Ideologies are failing because they are likewise too efficient: there is only one true way to exist, and that is the way of Allah (as preached by Osama bin Laden).  When maximizing profits creates snafus, true believers in the modern market economy cannot think of a new way to do business: like an alcoholic who has drunk all the gin in the house, they start raiding the medicine and cleaning cabinets, grasping for anything to keep their drunken dream of happiness alive.  Just so, when the violent way of Allah creates hell instead of heaven, the terrorists respond with more violence, hoping that the ideologically driven crusade that is in many ways the cause of their problems may magically turn into a solution.  When Coriantumr kills Shiz (Ether 15), they may finally have their way.  If there are no people left in the world, then there will be no sectarian violence!  But is that the best resolution we can come up with?  What is the point of heaven anyway, if the only way to have it is to raise hell?

The more I think about moral conflicts, the less useful violence seems to me.  It has its place, of course, and it will not be denied.  But that does not mean that that place is necessarily where past generations have put it.  And there are differing degrees of violence.  I can kill someone actively, or I can passively make their lives so miserable and impossible that they kill themselves.  I can hurl bombs, or I can hurl insults.  (Note that polite insults are still insults.)  If the choice is necessarily between one and the other, I naturally prefer the insults and the passive aggression (whether I am on the giving or the receiving end).  But I would actually like to maintain my distance from both kinds of violence.  I want my way of life to be as nonviolent as possible.  Ironically, this requires that I admit some violence, since to deny it entirely would merely lead to its appearing under some clever disguise (like the "re-education camps" employed by certain high-minded regimes).  Pretending that I am utterly harmless is as silly and as wrong as indulging every opportunity I have to do harm.  I have to admit the real harmfulness that is in me.  I have to know it, and I have to develop real means of dealing productively with it.  This is tough stuff, requiring a lot more moral fiber than many of us seem to think (to judge from our public discourse).

More on this later.  For now, I'm tapped out.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Irish Republican Army

Timothy Shanahan. The Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Morality of Terrorism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.  ISBN: 0748635300.

Richard English. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.  ISBN: 0195177533.

Both of these books tell much of the modern story of the Irish civil war and its ongoing bloody aftermath.  English's book is more historical (offering evidence and trying to interpret events with an eye toward understanding what really happened), while Shanahan's is more philosophical (going beyond what happened to inquire why it happened and whether it should have happened, i.e. how it can or cannot be justified).  If you want a timeline (from the nineteenth-century Fenian movement to the 1916 Easter Rising to the 1969 schism that produced the Provisional IRA), English is good.  If you want a discussion of moral positions, English is still good, but Shanahan is better.

Reading these books piecemeal, distracted by my real life, I cannot claim to have digested them thoroughly.  But I know enough to articulate better some of insights from my study of terrorism.  I am going to go through these quickly here.

(1) Terrorists are people, too.  There was a point in my life when I thought of terrorists the way other Tolkien characters think of orcs.  Terrorists were pond scum, whose human form was just some kind of disguise.  In English and Shanahan's books, however, you see that the IRA are just people: they live, long, believe, suffer, and die the same way the rest of us do.  They don't like blowing up babies.  They don't do it for fun, but like many of us, they can be suckered into doing stupid things "for the greater good."

(2) Terrorists believe in absolute truth.  The most frightening insight into the terrorist mind that my research has revealed is its obsession with the one "true" way of being.  All terrorists are dedicated to a cause that is bigger than they are, a cause which they see as the work of God, a cause before which every knee must bow and every tongue confess.  This insight is frightening because of my former belief in absolute truth.  Now that time has worn off some of the initial shock of learning that absolute truth stokes some very dangerous ideological fires, I can see that the mirage of absolute truth offers some benefits too (along with stultifying mental rigidity and the occasional bomb).  It helps people (especially those with truly miserable lives) find purpose and meaning in their suffering.  In the case of the Irish revolutionaries, it redeems their feelings of helplessness in the face of coercion, whether from the British military (who outgun them), or from their own countrymen (who outnumber, hate, and fear them).  It gives them a means for exerting some influence over the course of their own lives.  Their lives are not just wastes of time and space: they are contributions to a glorious Irish destiny, which the soldiers of the IRA see as a republic uniting all the counties in perfect harmony.  This harmony is entirely unhistorical and impossible, of course, since a significant number of Irish people do not believe in it.  As with the Basques, so among the Irish there are deep ideological fissures separating members of a single culture.

(3) Violence is never a good long-term strategy.  The real problem that terrorists consistently run into is that their way of finding meaning in life brings them into violent conflict with other people.  Their meaning requires that other meanings submit or die.  They cannot compromise (because their truth is absolute).  They cannot back down.  They cannot change their minds.  What is it that gives them this impossible rigidity?  It is the power of conviction.  Faith in their absolute truth leads them to do and say things that cause their fellowmen significant (and even irreparable) harm.  As a result, they are naturally feared and hated.  Their cause falls into disrepute among non-believers, who denounce them as monsters and/or crackpots and even (in the case of the IRA) mount armed counter-resistance against them.  Uncompromising hatred breeds uncompromising hatred, and the terrorist dream of heaven ends up creating hell on earth.  Instead of an Ireland divided but civil, we get an Ireland divided, blown up, and extremely angry.    

I think there are many important lessons to learn from terrorism.  For me, the most important lesson has been that I need to make a conscious effort to find ways of dreaming and believing that do not put me on the warpath with other people.  I do not want my dreams of heaven to make life on earth hell.  I am not interested in fighting wars (whether the "cultural" wars we talk about today in the USA or actual shooting wars like the one fought by the IRA).  In the context of Mormonism, my study in terrorism is one of the reasons I refuse to be a bitter ex-Mormon.  I don't think that would make anything better, really, for me or for anyone else.  It would just pile more fuel on the awful fire of uncompromising emotional enthusiasm that has destroyed so many good things in this world (including much of modern Ireland).  My studies are also part of the reason I cannot ever have the faith I once had, either.  I cannot believe in something so fervently that I become closed to compromise, to doubt, to mercy.  I cannot believe in absolute truth.  I find it immoral.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Are Mormons Christian?

I wrote this for some friends.  I liked it enough to save it here.

My two cents on the perennial argument about who is really a Christian.  It is a bad question.  It is like asking, "Who is a real human being?"  "Who is a nice person?"  "Who is a true Scotsman?" (for the atheists and logicians out there).  You cannot own a descriptive adjective.  Constantine and the bishops at Nicaea tried really hard to create a monopoly on the meaning of the word Christian throughout the Roman empire.  They failed.  The Catholic church then attempted to maintain a monopoly on the meaning of the word in Europe.  They failed.  Now various Protestant sects want to claim a monopoly.  And they are failing.  Christians are scattered all over world, believing all kinds of things, and practicing all kinds of different rituals.  There is no such thing as an objectively true Christian.  There are only people who use the word Christian to describe themselves.  If you want to say something meaningful about yourself, you cannot be content to say, "I am a Christian," and leave it at that.  Are you Catholic (what rite?), Orthodox (what rite?), Protestant (what sect?), etc.?  What do you think Jesus taught?  (Surprise!  Christians do not agree about the nature of Christ.  There are degrees of deviance, with some people being more alike than others, but we are all different.)

Mormons run into the same problem with their own descriptive adjective when they get mad at splinter groups (including the polygamist churches) who call themselves Mormons. "We aren't those people!  They cannot steal our identity!  Blah, blah!"  Historically, those groups have every bit as much right as the LDS to the adjective Mormon.  When we get mad at them for using it (and daring to use it differently than we do), we only reveal our pettiness.  (Is religion about words for us?  Do we really care that much about adjectives, for Christ's sake?  What is the New Testament really about, people?)  The only moral position is to let our actions speak for themselves.  If you want to get a message of goodness out into the world, you have to be good.  You cannot waste time fighting about stuff that (1) doesn't really matter and (2) that you are never going to change by fighting.  The fact of the matter is that historical Christianity has always given birth to heretics, much to the chagrin of the orthodox.  Many Catholics would expunge the Protestant Reformation if they could.  Many Protestants would expunge the Mormon Restoration.  Many Mormons would expunge the schism that produced the FLDS.  But history isn't about what we would do.  It's about what other people already did.  Historically speaking, Mormons (including the FLDS) are clearly a Christian offshoot, different from other offshoots but not categorically separate.  (The Mormon vision of Jesus, particularly in the Book of Mormon, is recognizably Protestant, with a few tweaks that drive Nicene believers crazy, though I had a professor at BYU who showed us how Mormons could embrace the Nicene creed, if we were willing to get creative with the meaning of the deliberately vague Greek words used to craft it.)

Call us bad Christians, deviant Christians, heretical Christians, anti-Christ Christians, or whatever you want, really.  It doesn't really matter, and it won't really change anything (except insofar as it contributes to emotional sectarian feeling on both sides).  And that exclusivist streak that you find in us, that arrogance that presumes to judge other Christians and find them wanting?  That is vintage historical Christianity: Joseph Smith took it from the Christian movements around him.  (Read some of the proselytizing pamphlets from the era: slandering the other guy was the way to preach back then.)  Not only that, it goes all the way back: as far back as we are aware of groups of people calling themselves Christians, we find them at one another's throats (literally or figuratively) over the fact that they cannot agree about stuff.  (Read the New Testament, especially Acts.  Notice Ananias, Sapphira, and the fight between Peter and Paul.)  Christ came to bring a sword, didn't he?  But it is ultimately unfair to make partisan craziness uniquely Christian: we find it all over human history, before, after, and outside of Christianity (as well as all through it).  People separate into groups and fight about whose group is best.  If we're lucky, we just call each other names.  If we're not, we end up with wars.  C'est la vie.  I wish it weren't so.  I used to think that Christians should be different.  But historical research has entirely wilted my naive optimism.