Saturday, April 14, 2012

Working for the Man

Dire Straits.  "The Man's Too Strong."  In Brothers in Arms. Warner Brothers, 1985.

I wrote this in response to a friend who pointed me to an article referencing Ann Romney.

I actually agree with this article too, for the most part.  I think the choice to stay out of the workforce is a valid one for the individual (whether male or female), and I agree that the family (whatever people make it up) constitutes an important check on the larger community in terms of forming and imparting moral value(s).

My only dog in this fight is that I am very suspicious of the larger community, including organizations that break families up or prevent them from forming in the name of protecting them.  I think Ann Romney should be free to live as she wants (with her family, as it turns out).  I think other people should be similarly free (even if they are gay, or members of some minority religion -- including what some would call atheism or humanism).  I grew up thinking that there were some larger social organizations that defended the family and others that attacked it.  Now I think that all larger social organizations attack the family -- not necessarily because they want to; that is just what their existence entails in the long run: the Democratic party is bad for families; the Republican is too; Wal-Mart is bad for families; and the LDS church can be too (along with every other church out there).  I work for the university: this is good for my family, in that it gives them food that they need to survive; it is also bad for them, in that it takes me away from them for long hours.  There are palliatives that I get to help out with the hurt (subsidies for childcare, healthcare, scholarships providing paid leave, etc.), but they do not cancel it: they just make it a little easier to bear (sometimes, for those who are in a position to take advantage of them).

As I see it, we are all caught in a constant balancing game: we all have to serve our families by leaving them (and playing roles in larger organizations).  The key to playing this game well is recognizing when our service to the Man (the larger organizations) becomes more of a drag then a benefit.  This is really hard to do when the Man pressures you into making Him your first priority (the third wheel in your marriage, the first in line to take a cut from your paycheck, the one whose direct order you are honor and duty bound to obey, or else).

I think I have come to a better relationship now with the Man than I have ever had, though I know I have a long way to go.  I am still very paranoid: I find it really hard to trust people outside of my family.  I tend to avoid dealing with my superiors in the Man's hierarchy more than I probably should (leading them to think of me as a bit of a loose cannon, perhaps).  The hard thing, for me, is learning to trust the Man at all.  I trusted Him too absolutely before, and He really burned me.  I don't know if I will ever be really comfortable with Him again.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Furor Pietatis

William Kalosieh.  A Caricature of Piety: My Descent into Scrupulosity and Compulsions. Xlibris, 2010. ISBN: 9781450020923.

My wife gave me this book a while back, and I read it through with great interest.  John Dehlin's recent podcast on LDS scrupulosity sent me back to it, and I decided to do this little post collating things from Mr. Kalosieh's experience that match my own life and thinking. 

On Sex and Pathological Guilt.  In the following anecdote (pp. 86-88), Mr. Kalosieh describes very well the kind of religious experience that was the bane of my young adulthood:
[As a teenager in high school,] I was watching an old movie on TV, and the heroine was Lucille Ball in a dramatic role. I was accustomed to seeing her in the comedy series I Love Lucy and had never thought of her in a sensual way. As I was watching the movie, she appeared fully dressed, but her breasts caught my attention--and in a flash the thought passed through my mind, "I never realized she was so big." I was immediately struck with fear, terror, and guilt.  I found myself accusing myself of having indulged in impure thoughts. The more I defended myself to myself, the worse it became. I was having an argument within myself, and I was losing. I could not minimize nor allay my anxiety. I certainly could not forgive a momentary indiscretion because my accuser (my "conscience") did not see it as minor. Sex is serious. I had deliberately taken pleasure in a sexual thought. I knew it was wrong and I fully consented to it; therefore, I had committed a mortal sin. Those who commit mortal sins, according to the Baltimore Catechism, are not worthy of God's friendship nor of heaven. If you die in a state of mortal sin, you die as God's enemy and go right to hell. There and then, and for many months to come, I thought how horrible my plight was. Other people who have all kinds of problems and enemies can run and hide under God's protective wing, be consoled by his love for them despite their hardships. But when God is your enemy, where can you go and hide? From where can you seek extraordinary help? When God hates you, so does all of heaven.

Over and over and over again in my mind, I questioned whether I had indeed taken any pleasure in the thought--fully or partially. I had already conceded to my accusing conscience, which was berating and vilifying me, that the deliberate entertaining of impure thoughts was mortal, not venial, but I protested that I did not take pleasure in the thought and that the thought was not deliberate but spontaneous. To no avail. Like a victim in the jaws of a crocodile, my conscience had had its teeth in my mind and heart and was twisting and thrashing me about mentally and emotionally. After several hours of this internal struggle and with tears streaming down my face, I thought to myself, "I wish I had never been born." My reaction to this thought was as intense as the reaction to the internal passing idea regarding Lucille Ball. Had I not just then committed the dreaded and unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit alluded to in scripture? And so for several more hours, my conscience accused me of sinning against the Holy Spirit. It was the last thing on my mind before going to sleep at night, and the very first thing when I awoke. If I awoke in the process of turning in my bed, the thought of sin assailed me.

I did not discover sex [when this happened] ... I had had ample exposure to the differences between the sexes, and I'd picked up misinformation from my peers in the streets and from glimpses here and there. I played spin the bottle at graduation parties from grammar school and played who could kiss the longest with willing girls in the neighborhood.  The occasional nighttime emission and deliberate manual manipulation were not unknown to me. But never had my reaction to the mere hint of sexuality provoked such a dreadful and villainous response.

I could not wait to go to confession and rid myself of this dreadful guilt. I recall stumbling over my words as I attempted to both defend and accuse myself before a priest of St. George's Church. My sense of shame prevented me from going to Fr. Paul [the family priest] for confession. I was so distraught that I could not conceal my tears, but I was also angry because something inside me knew that I was innocent of the charge. Had I wished never to have been born? Was this a type of desire for suicide, and isn't suicide a slap in God's face for the gift of life? How does one explain all this to a priest in two or three minutes, when there are about a dozen people outside the confessional box waiting to be cleansed? The priest assured me that I had not committed the sin against the Holy Ghost and that I should avoid any near occasions of sexual sins in the future. I was absolved and given a penance to say. In my attempt to avoid all near occasions of sexual sins, I eventually realized that everyone and anything could, by association, eventually be considered sexual. For a while, I would not look at a girl or woman beyond an acknowledging glance.
Mr. Kalosieh's experience is like mine, only I was not even as normal as he was.  In my case, I was never able to do any of the "normal" things that didn't bother him as a kid.  (Night-time emissions in particular would send me into tailspins almost every time, following the path of guilty self-flagellation that he outlines.)  After I hit puberty, I was unable to interact normally with age-mates of the opposite sex until I was more than twenty years old.  I was too ashamed, too frightened.  Until I met my wife, I never had a girlfriend: more than that, I never had a friend who happened to be a girl close to my own age.  A few girls tried to be nice to me; I am ashamed to say I pushed them away.  I was caught in a very uncomfortable mental place, in which I alternately longed for female company (but could not have it because I was too impure) and eschewed it (because girls were agents of Satan, tempting me with walking pornography).  I was caught head over heels in the false mind-trap that reduces all sexually attractive women to impossibly pure virgins and/or impossibly evil whores.  Thank goodness I got out.

On Pathological Confession.  Kalosieh hits this one out of the park.  We could have been the same guy, though he happened to be Catholic instead of Mormon (pp. 88-89):
I cannot recall presently what all the subsequent "sins" were that I felt a horrible dread for, but I know that anything having to do with sex, getting angry, or hesitation to declare Christ publicly were the theme for many subsequent confessions. I could not distinguish temptation from sin, to the satisfaction of my accusing conscience.  Suppressed anger was still anger and required absolution. Likewise, any reluctance to proselytize, proclaim, and pray in public meant I was denying Christ. Once on the public transportation bus to school, I heard a girl whom I hardly knew say to a girlfriend in the course of their conversation that she intended not to attend mass the next day, which was a holy day of obligation. The thought was in my mind that as a good Catholic and out of fraternal concern for the welfare of her soul, I should call her at home and admonish her for her contemplated sin. I didn't know her phone number, but after hours of tormenting myself with "should I, shouldn't I," I gave in and found her number in the book, but stopped short of completing the call to her. By my private logic, I had denounced my affiliation with Christ and I was indifferent to her spiritual welfare! In a similar fashion, if someone took the Lord's name in vain, I felt compelled to assert, "Blessed be the name of Jesus!" If someone had a task to accomplish, I felt obligated to encourage them to say a prayer first. I felt very guilty if I said anything negative about anyone, especially if I made public "the unknown fault of another." And I thought I was rejecting God's grace whenever it was suggested to me to do an act of charity or of penance, because I was made aware of the chance to do good and I opted not to ...
All the while, I recognized in some small, rational manner that what was being "suggested," "demanded," "recommended" to me by the "Lord" or the voice of God--my conscience--could not be right. Failing to follow the internal directives generated guilt, shame, and terror. How does one pray at all if he believes God is furious with him? Going to confession was a nightmare for several reasons. First, the embarrassment of trying to convey to the priest why I thought I had both sinned and didn't sin. Second, his absolution was, in my mind, only going to be valid if I were truly sorry and fully resolved not to commit that "sin" again. I would always question myself, not only about the three things that made an action/thought sinful (knowledge, intent, full consent), but also on the sincerity of my contrition and resolve not to repeat the "sin." Third, if the priest did not execute his function correctly (fully aware and attentive, properly understanding the case being presented to him, accurately reciting the prayer of absolution), the forgiveness of sin would not have taken place. Fourth, more often than not, one of the above conditions was thought to be wanting, thereby invalidating the confession or the absolution, as a result of which I was still in "sin." Fifth, no sooner would a valid and acceptable confession be executed than another sin would get committed, requiring another confession. Were it not for the agonizing fear, the endless tendency to analyze and defend myself, the guilt felt and the tears shed, my confessions would have been comical. 
I remember doing everything Kalosieh talks about here.  Something would set me off (having a wet dream, seeing an attractive woman or girl, saying something that in retrospect did not strike me as wholly true or candid, etc.).  I would spend some time in solitary prayer, crying and begging God to have mercy on me.  I would look around desperately for signs that he had.  Sometimes I found them.  Other times, I didn't.  Either way, I would end up going to the bishop (the Mormon version of the priest who takes confession).  If I was really unlucky, our encounter would occur as part of some routine interview determining my worthiness to participate in a group youth activity (like a temple trip).  I would enter the bishop's office with my bitter self-accusation and self-defense, the paradox that Kalosieh describes so well above, and hijinks would ensue.  It didn't matter what the bishop did. If he agreed with my self-accusation, then I was despondent (sometimes suicidal, though I never got as far as acting out on any of my fantasies).  If he agreed with my self-defense, then I would depart in a state of temporary elation, which would always wear off quickly as I doubted the integrity of his decision (did he really hear what I was accusing myself of? was he paying close enough attention? was he ignoring the prompting of the Spirit that I should be dealt with more harshly?) and fell once more into "sin" (having a wet dream, seeing an attractive female, saying something even remotely dishonest).  In many ways, this latter option was worse: I got a little taste of forgiveness before God reached down and snatched it away again, smashing all my aspirations of escaping "sin" once and for all.  A little moment in heaven for all my hours in hell.  It was so frustrating.  No one understood what was wrong with me: I didn't, my parents didn't, and my bishop sure as hell didn't.

On Blame and Healing.  I resonate with much of what Kalosieh says here (pp. 237-239):
On a couple of occasions I have been asked if I blame the church for my inadequate (twisted?) spiritual upbringing and all the harm that came with it. Here too I am inclined to answer both yes and no. No, because I received virtually the same education and instruction as many of my peers, and they did not react to it as I did ... If one student is terrified by the instructor's teaching that to miss mass on Sunday is a mortal sin and the rest of the class is "indifferent" -- not sold on the teaching or merely curious about the idea -- why blame the teacher? This is not to say that the actual doctrine one is reared in makes no difference ... While religious doctrine that cultivates the notion of evil in human nature (or a primordial rupture between the person and the Divine) is not exclusively responsible for the tendency some people have to develop overwhelming guilt and obsessions regarding the ultimate questions of life, it is difficult to envision the cessation of such a disorder as long as this belief is instilled into young, impressionable minds ... Dealing with questions about the meaning and purpose of life (if any), the nature of being human, life before conception as well as life after death, the foundations of morality, etc., etc., does not necessarily unhinge a person, regardless of whether he believes or not. But the descent into the meaning of life and the significance of the individual is fraught with profound consequences, which only denial or suppression of human needs can take with an attitude of detached indifference. It is not the "fault" of religion (or any other human inquiry) that it deals with this type of soul-searching, and it is eventually up to the adult individual to decide what he accepts as true or what to reject as false, what he believes and what he doubts.
Paradoxes abound in the human dimension, and attempts to explain them are limited by language. Language itself is often inadequate to communicate meaning. The great religious thinkers and teachers rarely used a univocal paradigm by which to address their audiences. Variety and plurality of parables and metaphors characterized their teaching and constituted their pedagogy. Western minds are especially prone to become unsettled by this because it threatens the illusion that all knowledge should be black or white and lead to predictability and control ... If the [religious] student is a person of integrity and honesty, the ideas researched [as part of a religious education] may bring about a conversion of essential, foundational beliefs, which in turn regulate frameworks of thought and behaviors. Such inquiries may be debilitating precisely because the student must wrestle with his self, his meaning and his significance, that of others, as well as of life in general. The neophyte descends into the depths of selfhood searching for ultimate truths. His tools are of the very essence of his dignity and courage: freedom, intelligence, language, spirit, character, etc., but their value and suitability will be challenged. All who descend with the intent to excavate and explore are vulnerable to a primordial dimension of chaotic proportions, and the encounter can leave one indelibly marked. Singular explanations do not suffice there because the experiences defy portrayal with a photographic precision or a mathematical preciseness.
If I say, on the other hand, that I can fault, to a degree, those who educated me in the area of religion (and, specifically, in the areas of spirituality and morality) I can do so only because men and women recognized by history as giants in the field of spirituality and morality have themselves done so. For example, the mystic St. Teresa of Avila frequently advocated for spiritual direction from someone learned and educated, and complained that for many years, she was harmed by the wrong advice given to her by various spiritual directors. Good, pious intentions are not enough to be someone's spiritual director, and spiritual direction is a specialty. An individual with a number of cognitive dysfunctions may not be an ideal candidate for spiritual direction because the expertise to address the malfunctioning judgments, affects, and comprehension lie outside the typical spiritual director's scope, unless he is also trained in the art of pastoral counseling [as lay Mormon clergy are even less likely to be than their Catholic counterparts].
For me, healing required growing up and learning to deal with my own problems.  I had to put aside the counsel of scriptures, prophets, and local LDS leaders, and confront myself on my own terms, with no distractions.  Like Kalosieh, I discovered that I was uniquely fragile, broken, and dysfunctional.  I realized that there is no single, simple way to repair a broken psyche -- that my shattered soul required unique attention, a unique (and personally applicable) solution.  In the midst of all my weakness, however, I also discovered strength.  I found the ethical values I really do aspire to.  I learned what I really think about the nature of God, righteousness, and the universe.  I acquired an adult perspective on the world -- a perspective that is unique to me, a perspective that I use for myself but do not impose unnecessarily on other people.  I learned that others are different from me, sometimes vastly so, that their needs are not always my needs, and that they occasionally need things that I emphatically do not.  And I realized that I am OK with that, even thought it means that my conception of useful religious faith is nothing like the official doctrine of any organization, particularly not authoritarian organizations like the LDS or Catholic churches (which place the individual member under covenant to submit wholly and utterly to priesthood leaders).

I don't hold the LDS church wholly responsible for the fact that I was what I was.  I don't blame my parents, either.  And I don't blame myself.  We all did the best we could: I did, my parents did, and the church did, too.  Unfortunately, we were wrong about what was best for me.  Fortunately, I was able to figure out what was up before it got really out of hand (i.e. before I castrated or killed myself or became utterly committed to a program of treatment that would merely aggravate my symptoms ad nauseam).  If I have blame for the church, particularly the leadership, it comes not from their human ignorance (which afflicts us all) but from their refusal to admit to it -- and for the unnecessary pain that this arrogance causes people like me, people who should not be spending hours obsessing and confessing under the illusion that such degrading behavior is guaranteed to make things better (whether here and now or hereafter in another world).  These people need something other than your garden variety forgiveness and absolution, if they are to live happy lives.  The repentance process does not redeem them: it merely crucifies them, over and over until they give it up.  As long as church leaders, particularly those in the governing quorums, fail to acknowledge the inadequacy of their priesthood discipline as a panacea for every kind of soul sickness, they will continue to hurt people like me, and I will continue to recommend that people avoid undergoing their treatment -- just as I would warn the bodily sick against a surgeon who tried to cure all illness with bleeding (or some other ancient treatment whose anecdotal effectiveness in one instance is no guarantee that it won't cause massive harm in another).  Honesty is something I value, and honesty requires I that admit the fact that church discipline has not helped my life: on the contrary, it came pretty close to ruining it.  If it helps you, that is great, but your experience does not cancel out mine.  The drug that helps you may kill me (and vice versa).  People who are like me (rather than you) need to know that I exist, and that church discipline was not good for me.

On Faith.  Kalosieh's concluding statement of faith comes close to mine (pp. 241-242):
My commitment to Catholicism, such as it is, does not endure because of scripture and what theologians refer to as public revelation, i.e., that period of time from the life of Christ up to the death of the last apostle ... I doubt that a genuinely religious person is merely someone who adheres to a system of beliefs (creeds) and a way of life (morals and spirituality) because of recorded events (accurately recorded or not) from millennia past. The very notion that a person's ultimate values should hinge exclusively upon historical events, I find repugnant. I believe that religion continues to live within the human community for reasons over and above that of traditions and cultural education. Religion is inherent in our nature, just as are music, art, dance, wondering, politics, science, etc. Faith is anchored not so much in the accuracy or inaccuracy of historical events, but in the experience of the human community then and now. Neither the solitary individual's experiences nor the historical events recorded in manuscripts enjoy a monopoly on the truths of the religious dimensions in mankind. Just as anyone would be foolish to ignore the history of any issue, idea, problem, or undertaking, so too would a person be foolish not to consult the experiences of the human community with regards to religion and religious experiences.
History, however, does not have a monopoly on the mystical, the experiences of awe and wonder, the drive for meaning and significance. As in the past, so too today the exact nature of those experiences can be questioned, debated, doubted, or believed. I believe that God can and does intervene in our time and space. Whether directly or indirectly, through nature or beyond nature, I am still open to further considerations as to how this is achieved. When I look at history in search of signs and wonders, I discern that the Catholic Church seems to enjoy an abundance of people and places where and to whom those interventions occur. It would be preposterous, however, to imply anything along the lines of God hearing and answering only Catholics, just as it would be unthinkable that only Catholics enjoy the miraculous in their midst ... Ironically, although the Catholic Church is quick to assert the miraculous in the life and times of Jesus and the apostles, she is skeptical of the miraculous in the present era! Mystics who report apparitions, locutions, etc., are said to enjoy "private revelations." The church does not obligate the faithful  to embrace any of these (although after an exhaustive investigation along empirical scientific lines, she may encourage the faithful to assent to them). Wherever it appears that an altered state of consciousness is involved, the church turns skeptical and scientific. She does well to do so because "private revelations" are no guarantee of the whole truth in what is "revealed." For example, predictions made in these altered states of consciousness have proven wrong, erroneous, and sometimes harmful, both to the person who has had the experience and those who believed and took action based upon it. On the other hand, there were also genuine, authentic, wholesome, and helpful revelations that proved their genuineness over time in the life of the recipient and those who believed, e.g., Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima ...
Critics could reduce my commitment to Catholicism solely to my upbringing. But the only way to demonstrate that such is not the case would be for me to renounce it. I would be like the character who lamented that the only way he could prove his freedom was to commit suicide. Ironically, whereas some see me as a staunch Catholic, others see me as outside the fold.  I see myself as neither. I can pray with any religious person.
Today, I am in a position much like that of Kalosieh.  The correlated LDS experience produced by the Corporation of the President has little for me, since I cannot actively participate in meetings where vocal submission to priesthood authority is required (and I find much of the doctrine simply wrong as it is taught, reflecting a poor understanding of history and the human condition, past and present).  But I am still a Mormon.  I use Mormon language.  I have Mormon tastes (even if they don't match what is most popular currently at the Church Office Building).  I have a Mormon history, and the ethical values that I continue to find meaningful have a long history in Mormonism.  (I value personal revelation, integrity, family, hard work, charity, sacrifice, community, etc.  I do not have to believe in the pristine moral purity of Joseph Smith to hold these values.  I do not have to approve modern church leaders' decision to build a great and spacious building in Salt Lake City.  I do not have to think that all priesthood counsel must be followed regardless of circumstances, or consequences.  I do not have to deny my birthright as a rational being.  I do not have to hold beliefs I find untenable or practices I find repugnant.)

I don't necessarily deny the numinous, the mysterious, what some call the divine.  Life contains many things I do not understand.  If we put them all together, assuming they are bound up together somehow, the result might be called God (or the gods).  I have no problem with that, until some of us invoke this semantic patch as an excuse to control others.  My inability to comprehend ultimate reality (God) does not give me authority to dictate to you unilaterally.  In my experience, Mormon priesthood leaders -- all of them -- are men just like me.  (The lack of women in leadership roles is another issue, but we don't have to go there now.)  They have no more right to dictate unilaterally to me in the name of God than I have to dictate to them.  If their counsel works, then I believe it should be followed (just as counsel from a doctor should be followed if the observed result is that patients get better).  If it does not work, then it should not be followed (just a series of deaths in the hospital would curtail the privileges of a rogue physician with a bad idea, or a string of bad luck making him a danger to his patients).  Philosophically speaking, I think I am ultimately more of a materialist and an atheist than Kalosieh: for me, God is more like an emergent principle of order in the universe, an unexplained tendency of matter to form itself into ordered patterns.  Practically and ethically, we are on the same page.  What matters is what you do, how you live your life here and now--not how some great hero of the mythical past lived (or didn't), and submission to authority is no substitute for personal engagement.  You may feel called of God to tell me how to live my life, but that does not mean I feel called to submit to your direction, particularly when it makes me miserable.

Unlike many in my position, I don't mind praying or singing hymns.  I do both, on occasion, and I enjoy it (especially the singing).  In this I am like Kalosieh.  From my perspective, it does not matter what the service is -- whether it is offered to this god or that one, to Jesus or Allah or Ganesh (etc.) -- but what it does in the heart of those who take part.  I can pray with any believer, in any religion: if his worship conduces to the values I share (things like integrity, family, hard work, charity, sacrifice, community, etc.), then I have no reservations about participating.  And I include thoughtful conversations with atheists among some of my most uplifting "spiritual" experiences, in all seriousness.

Reading Kalosieh's book was a special experience for me.  I laughed.  I cried.  I looked over some passages again and again.  In many cases, it was like meeting my Doppelganger, and yet, at the end of the day, we are very different men.  There is beautiful poetry in our likeness proving unlike.  When it is done right, religion gives this poetry a voice: it gives us words to talk about how we are at once alike and different -- unique and particular manifestations of profound generalities that we cannot always see clearly.  Mormonism and Catholicism both offer material for creating particular windows onto an unknown (and wild) reality -- the generic, objective truth that some call God.  Science and humanism can also create windows into this same reality, and they do not make it any less miraculous.  I wish more people understood this.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Martin Luther's Mad Dogs

Eric W. Gritsch.  Reformer without a Church: The Life and Thought of Thomas Muentzer, 1488 [?] - 1525.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967.

Hans-Juergen Goertz.  Thomas Muentzer: Apocalyptic, Mystic, and Revolutionary.  Trans. Jocelyn Jacquiery.  Ed. Peter Matheson.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993.

Peter Matheson, trans. & ed. The Collected Works of Thomas Muentzer. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988. 

"Truly, the person who has seen Muentzer may claim to have seen the devil incarnate in his very worst raging. Oh, Lord God, wherever such a spirit is abroad among the peasants, it is high time they were destroyed like mad dogs! For the devil too senses the Last Day, and so he stirs up the evil brew to show all the powers of hell at once."  Martin Luther, Ein brieff an die Fuersten zu Sachsen von dem auffrurischen geyst (quoted in Goertz, p. 8).

"One thing pleased me about Muentzer, that from the beginning he sided with the ordinary man, and not with the bigwigs."  John Agricola (in the character of Wolf Schwermer, quoted in Goertz, p. 9). 

I complain a lot about the LDS Church Education System here, so I am happy to be able to say something nice about it now.  Several years ago, before I left to serve a two-year mission in Spain, I attended a really good Institute class.  It was a class in the history of Christianity before Mormonism, with special emphasis on the Reformation and its aftermath.  Where most of the CES classes in scripture that I attended were shallow and boring (confusing fervent testimony with accurate understanding, and operating under the tacit presumption that all students are morons), this one was not.  I was actually interested in this class, which opened my eyes to a lot of information I had not encountered before.  It was really nice to learn something real at church, to come to class and get something other than the obligatory testimony book-ended by "faith-promoting" kitsch.  Even as a believing Mormon, I liked both breadth and depth in my religion: my faith was intellectually stimulating, challenging, and open--the same way my doubt has been.  This class was a breath of fresh air, and it provided my first introduction to Thomas Muentzer, sowing seeds in my mind that are still germinating today.

Thomas Muentzer reminds me a lot of Joseph Smith.  Muentzer participated in the Reformation alongside his contemporary Martin Luther, with whom he associated as a friend and ally before they quarreled over theology.  Preaching a Christian gospel that was at once mystic, anti-clerical, and apocalyptic (with a serious idea of founding heaven on earth), Muentzer anticipated many things in Mormonism.  Like Joseph Smith, he was ultimately put to death by people who found him obnoxious (and like Joseph Smith, he put up a real fight before they took him down: he was taken prisoner on the field at the Battle of Frankenhausen, tortured until he recanted, and ultimately put to death by the German nobility whose authority he threatened).  The one thing he did not do, as far as I can tell, is attempt to coerce young girls into marrying him using religious blackmail (though, like Luther, he went against the religious standard of his day by marrying a runaway nun).  To be honest, this actually makes him more attractive: in many ways, he is what I used to imagine Joseph Smith being--an upstanding moral iconoclast who championed the cause of the common man (weavers, miners, peasants) against that of the establishment exploiting him (Roman Catholic clergy, secular rulers in bed with Lutheran clergy).  Consider the following excerpts from the published work of both men.

Muentzer, "Prague Manifesto" (1521, German version)
"St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3[:3] that the hearts of men are the paper or parchment upon which God with his finger inscribes his immovable will and eternal wisdom. This script not being written in ink, no man can read it ... unless God himself opens the human mind.  This he does in his elect from the very beginning, so that they are no longer uncertain but have invincible testimony from the Holy Spirit" (quoted in Gritsch, p. 56).
Muentzer, "A Manifest Expose of False Faith" (1524, written against Martin Luther)
"If someone had never had sight or sound of the Bible at any time in his life he could still hold the one true Christian faith because of the true teaching of the spirit, just like all those who composed the holy Scripture without any books at all; and he could also be completely certain that he drew such faith from the undeceivable God, not from the cunning devil or from his own human nature" (quoted in Goertz, p. 143). 
Joseph Smith, "Try the Spirits" (editorial published 1 April 1842 in Times and Seasons) 
"If it requires the Spirit of God to know the things of God; and the spirit of the devil can only be unmasked through that medium, then it follows as a natural consequence that unless some person or persons have a communication from God, unfolding to them the operation of the spirit, they must eternally remain ignorant of these principles; for I contend that if one man cannot understand these things but by the Spirit of God, ten thousand men cannot; it is alike out of the reach of the wisdom of the learned, the tongue of the eloquent, the power of the mighty. And we shall at last have to come to this conclusion, whatever we may think of revelation, that without it we can neither know nor understand anything of God, or the devil; and however unwilling the world may be to acknowledge this principle, it is evident from the multifarious creeds and notions concerning this matter that they understand nothing of this principle, and it is equally plain that without a divine communication they must remain in ignorance" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1976], pp. 205-206). 
Like Smith, Muentzer believed in the supremacy of Spirit over Word (a standard trope in Christian mysticism, which Muentzer inherited from old medieval tradition).  For both men, the religious experience is fundamentally an individual encounter with God -- an experientia fidei that need not be mediated by external texts or creeds (though these may prove helpful: Muentzer used the Bible, and Smith did too, adding his own revelations as interpretive guides for the more ancient scripture -- modern equivalents for the ancient midrashim).  Both men had little good to say about the religious teachers of their day.

Muentzer, "Prague Manifesto" (1521, German version)
"For a long time, the world--confused by many sects--has had a tremendous desire for the truth, according to Jer. [4:4].  There were many, and there are still many today, who have thrown the bread, that is, God's word and letter, just as it is thrown to dogs. They have never broken it. Oh, mark it well! They have never broken it for the children. They have never explained the true nature of the fear of God; they have never let it instruct them to become the immovable children of God. This is why Christians--to speak the plain truth--have become poltroons, saying that God has seemingly been struck dumb and no longer speaks with the people. They think it sufficient to read it in books, and then to spit it out like a stork spits out frogs for its young in the nest. They are not like a hen who gathers her young to keep them warm [Cf. Matt. 23:37, 3 Ne 10:5, D&C 10:65, et al]. They refuse to let God's real, true, natural word--which lives in all men--to the hearts of men like a mother offering milk to her child. Instead, they behave like the prophet Balaam [Num. 23-23]; they carry the letter in their mouths, but their hearts are one hundred thousand miles away from it! ... I have taken in the knowledge of this unbearable and evil disease of Christianity through a most diligent study of the ancient church fathers. I have found out that the immaculate, virginal church became a prostitute shortly after the death of the apostles and disciples, due to the scholars who always wanted to be at the top, as Hegesippus and Eusebius testify in [Ecclesiastical History] Book 4, 22. Moreover, no general council, I discovered, ever presented the inviolable word of God. It was all a childish prank. God's will permitted all this so that the work of all men might be revealed. Yet the monkish clergy shall never represent the true church. Instead, the elect friends of God's word will be instructed in prophecy, just as St. Paul was, so that they might really experience how amiably God speaks with his elect. I will, for the sake of God, sacrifice my life in order to reveal this truth" (quoted in Gritsch, p. 57).
"It is the shepherds who just eat, drink, and desire rich parishes. Day and night they are driven by one single ambition: to gorge themselves with food and fiefs, as Ezek. 34[:2] says ... These servants of Satan want to sell a piece of scripture. Yet no man knows whether or not he is worthy of the spirit and love of God! Such is the poison that emerges from the abyss where the priests, these messengers of the devil, reside, filled with the spirit of whoredom and fraud, according to Rev. [3]. They drive away the sheep of God, so that the church is left without a face ... The time of harvest is at hand. That is why God himself has hired me to labor in his harvest. I have sharpened my sickle; my mind is honed for truth; and my lips, hands, skin, hair, heart, soul, body, and life curse unbelief. Christ will give his kingdom to the elect in a little while ... Thomas Muentzer wants to pray, not to a dumb, but to a speaking God" (quoted in Gritsch, p. 58).
Joseph Smith, History of the Church 1.1-5 (1838) = Joseph Smith History (published in the Pearl of Great Price)
"Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.

"For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions ...

"While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture ...

"My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: 'they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.'"
 Joseph Smith, Revelation to His Father (1829) = Doctrine & Covenants 4
"Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men.  Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day. Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work; for behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul; and faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work.  Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Amen."
In theory, both Muentzer and Smith recognized that the kingdom of God made men brothers, exalting the common man and bringing down the rulers (no matter what their institutional affiliation: Muentzer was as much opposed to Lutheran authoritarianism in the end as to Catholic).

Thomas Muentzer, "Vindication and Refutation" (written against Martin Luther in 1524)
"O Doctor Liar, you wily fox. With your lies you have saddened the heart of the just man, whom God did not cause to grieve. For you have strengthened the power of the godless evil-doers, so that they could continue on in their old way. Therefore your fate will be that of the fox that has been hunted down; the people will go free and God alone will be their Lord" (quoted in Matheson, p. 350).
Joseph Smith, Prayer and Prophecies from Liberty Jail (1839) = Doctrine & Covenants 121:39-46
"We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. Hence many are called, but few are chosen.  No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile--reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.  Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever."
The irony of Joseph Smith renouncing authoritarian excess is not lost on me, by any means.  (Smith should have let the Nauvoo Expositor speak its piece unmolested: in keeping with the words offered here, he said "Amen!" to his own authority when he destroyed that press.  His courtship of Nancy Rigdon and Helen Mar Kimball also falls far short of the ideal he expresses here.)  And I see that there is a positive side to the conciliatory stance Muentzer condemns in Luther (who opposed revolution in the interest of keeping society from unraveling completely).  But when it comes down to the wire, I believe that society works better when people are equals (with nothing but their natural gifts and circumstances to make them stand out from the crowd, for good or ill).  As long as people are going to believe in God, I believe that the Spirit should prevail over the Word: both are often incoherent and idiotic, but the Spirit is more honest, since it recognizes that human interpretation of the divine (whatever that is) is transient, fleeting, subject to error (and proof: people find it easier to resist the Spirit than the Word, I think).

Even more important, I stand against authoritarian big-wigs using their accidental social clout to dictate to the little guy, telling him what to believe and where to put his hard-earned livelihood (in their pocket, naturally, so that they can build the world's most expensive shopping mall).  I aspire to a society where individuals encounter reality (God) for themselves and make their own decisions (imposing on one another by persuasion that does not include blatant lies or renounce reasonable compromise).

In short, the Mormonism to which I converted looks a lot like the Christianity of Thomas Muentzer.  It had its problems: the eschatology was bad, but that came straight from some of the dumbest portions of Scripture, portions which continue to addle the minds of Christians today.  But it was not entirely bad: it embraced revelation, innovation, and a radical identity between spirit and flesh (Muentzer and Smith both thought that Christian doctrine needed to be applied in the world as it exists now, that the current order of things should not be accepted as God's inalterable will: I agree).  When I wear the hat of the believing Christian, I still think in the tradition of Muentzer and Smith (particularly in their mysticism and their anti-clericalism / anti-authoritarianism).  The fact that they both ended up falling short of the high ideals they espoused does not mean that they offered the world nothing useful.  The fact that both of them led failed rebellions against the orthodoxies of their day does not mean that those orthodoxies were without fault.

I find Thomas Muentzer interesting enough that I may post more about him in time.