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.