Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Prophetic Book of Ether

Terryl Givens.  By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.  ISBN: 0195168887.

This book came to me as a gift from a dear Mormon friend, who heard about my faith crisis and wanted to help.  I found it more enjoyable than many apologetic works, and can recommend it (along with these interviews) to anyone interested in a faithful approach to Mormonism that does not eschew thinking (or truth, even the uncomfortable truth that people like Boyd K. Packer find useless).

Over the past ten years, I have done a lot of thinking (about life, including Mormonism).  One of the insights that has come to me can be illustrated well by a story in the Book of Mormon.  I offer my reading of that story here, as an homage to Givens, and a witness to the kind of Mormon that I am (inactive in the Corporation of the President, but firmly committed to certain principles of the gospel).

As a kid, I read the Book of Mormon many, many times.  (By the time I went on my mission, I had lost count of the number of times I had read it.)  To me, the culmination of the book was not the coming of Christ to the Americas (which always struck me as boring: he just repeats sections of the New Testament almost verbatim and performs a lot of perfunctory ordinances), but the Book of Ether.  In my mind, Ether was like a summary of the whole volume, with the brother of Jared playing the role of Lehi, the Jaredite kings fighting and converting like the early Nephite and Lamanite rulers, and Ether taking the prophetic mantle assumed elsewhere by Abinadi, Mormon, and Moroni.  Ether is simultaneously John the Baptist (a social outcast, eking out a lonely existence in a wilderness cave while he prophesies the end of civilization) and the Anglo-Saxon Wanderer (the last survivor of a lost tribe destroyed in battle, a role that Coriantumr also gets to play at the end of the Book of Ether, when the prophet Ether disappears: where does he go?).  As a social outcast within LDS Mormonism (and American society at large), I am drawn to Ether's character.  As someone who frequently feels like the world is falling apart around him, I identify with Ether.  I look into the world, and everywhere I see what Ether saw: Coriantumr and Shiz fight for total domination, dividing the whole civilized world between them, and eventually everybody loses (with Coriantumr as the lone survivor of what was once a great civilization: after everyone else perishes in battle, he wanders about all by himself, gets picked up by a group of new Jewish immigrants, and dies; Ether pulls an Enoch and just disappears from the narrative abruptly).  Maybe a crude chart can illustrate what I am getting at:

                                  CORIANTUMR vs. SHIZ

                                              Catholics vs. Protestants
                                      Martin Luther vs. Thomas Muentzer                         
                             Cavaliers (royalists) vs. Roundheads (parliamentarians)
                                                Puritans vs. Quakers
                                        conservatives vs. liberals
                                                    Tories vs. Whigs
                                  Thomas Jefferson vs. Alexander Hamilton
                       Missourians / Illinoisans vs. Mormons
                                         Confederacy vs. Union
                                         white people vs. black people
                                           bourgeoisie vs. proletariat
                                         management vs. unions
                              Axis Powers (Nazis) vs. Allies (Soviet-enablers)
                                                  fascists vs. communists
                                  Ezra Taft Benson vs. Hugh B. Brown
                                                       USA vs. USSR
                                 al-Qaeda / Taliban vs. USA
                                          family farms vs. Monsanto
                             straights (Mormons) vs. gays

Throughout history, people line up in partisan groups: us versus them.  The list above could get longer (much longer), but there is one thing you would never find on it: good versus evil.  Looking closely at both sides of the list reveals that even where one side enjoyed a preponderance of goodness (in comparison with its opponents), it was not utterly, purely good.  The political union forged to defeat the Nazis (a good enterprise!) came at the cost of enabling the Soviets (a bad enterprise).  The Confederacy supported slavery (a bad thing): they also supported states' rights (a good thing, since smaller systems function more intelligently, saving information that would otherwise be destroyed).  Alexander Hamilton was a staunch advocate for fiscal responsibility (a good thing): he also laid the foundation for the Fed (which comes with some seriously bad consequences that we are still living with).

In the character of Ether, I look at these conflicts, and I see human capital being wasted.  People on one side ignore all the good on the other side.  Worse, they ignore the bad on their side.  They identify their side as God's side, and brand their enemies as the stooges of Satan.  Mistaking Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for reality, they see themselves as sainted heroes and the enemy as vile orcs, forgetting that we are all just people: we are all at once bad and good.  There are no exceptions.  Every human organization hurts at least as many people as it helps: the question is what kind of harm that is.  If it is slight, then we might be willing to suffer it, especially if the alternative (e.g. being ruled by the Nazis) is utterly unbearable.  But we should never pretend that it isn't there.  We should never tell people to put absolute faith in any human coalition, encouraging them to ignore and deny the reality of human imperfection as an omnipresent element adulterating everything it touches.  Blind allegiance is dangerous -- to the individual (whom it leaves exposed to abuse by the group), and to society (which needs constructive criticism and dissent in order to grow and prosper).

This insight is not original to me.  I first encountered it in the work of Hugh Nibley:
"Patriotism shows itself in times of crisis: 'These are the times that try men's souls!' is the refrain of the earliest purely patriotic odes—those of the Greek lyric poets, who describe the true patriot as one who stands shoulder to shoulder with his fellow citizens facing any odds. In this atmosphere of crisis, an attitude of defense and defiance naturally associates patriotism with the panoply of war. The classic trappings of patriotism have been inherited by the Western World along with the pageantry of chivalry from the ceaselessly warring tribes of the steppes of Asia. The flag is the bright rallying point that can be seen for miles by the mounted hordes on the open plains, where the trumpet's message and the arrow's flight carry unhindered for great distances. In jungle and forest it is another story, but the formal symbols of European patriotism belong to 'the World of the Jaredites,' the polarized world of host against host on the darkling plain, of Shiz versus Coriantumr. But does the true patriot destroy his people in his own interests as that previous pair did? Under chivalry the essence of patriotism was to support one's liege lord, who enriched one with a share of his ceaseless looting. There are no more touching stories of loyalty than are found in the literature of the Heroic Ages. Yet Roland, Beowolf, Blondel, etc., stand out precisely because they were those rare souls who remained true while others ran for cover.
There is something wrong with this patriotism, which is based on conflict. As Froissart tells us forcibly, under chivalry the only way to prove one's nobility was by fighting somebody. The tradition survives, and to this day there are many whose patriotism is not a widening but a contracting circle, recalling the defensive-aggressive posture of the Roman trux et minax (dour and threatening), the walled towns and castles of the Middle Ages, the family shelter of the Jaredites in which "every man did cleave unto that which was his own; . . . and every man kept the hilt of his sword in his right hand, in the defence of his property and his own life and of his wives and children" (Ether 14:2), and finally, the narrowest circle of all, with every man "walk[ing] in his own way," seeking his own interests amid the rich offerings of Babylon (see D&C 1:16). The passion for security ends in total insecurity, with the would-be patriot fancying himself as a lone frontiersman, facing the world with his long rifle, his keen eyes searching the horizon for enemies and finding them everywhere; until one day as he draws his circle even smaller, we find him coolly keeping his next-door neighbor and fellow countrymen in the sights of his trusty .22, lest the latter make a suspicious move in the direction of his two-years' supply" (from "The Uses and Abuses of Patriotism" in Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints).
I still resonate with this kind of thinking today.  Unfortunately, it seems increasingly unwelcome in many of the places I grew up frequenting (including the LDS church, which does not welcome people who take its call for absolute loyalty with a rational grain of salt).  I have turned into a something of a social pariah -- a scruffy prophet crying out in the wilderness of the Internet, begging people to be honest with themselves and with others, even when honesty hurts.  I am another Ether -- one of many Mormons (and former Mormons) calling on the LDS church (especially) to remember its roots and come clean.  Who cares what the consequences are?  God can take care of the church, of people's testimonies, of the spin rival denominations may lay on anything we say.  Our place is to tell the truth and let the cards fall.  No more lies.  No more unthinking loyalty.  No more slandering the other side as mudslingers while we pretend to be spotless.  Following the advice attributed to Jesus in the Beatitudes, we need to forget about others' motes and concentrate on our own beams.  This will not be easy, but it is the right thing to do, and Mormons who really believe in righteousness will do it (to the best of their ability: no one can ask more than that).  Otherwise, we're just as guilty as anyone else.  In Ether's story, Coriantumr is no better than Shiz (and vice versa: at the end of the day, they are both guilty, both ruined, and both dead).

Friday, May 25, 2012

Meditation on Death, and Nature

The following essay is a summation of thoughts I have had locked away inside for some time.  Today they just came pouring out, in an online discussion about ethics (including the morality of humans killing animals and other life in order to feed ourselves).

I am not going to argue that death is always a bad thing. But this means that human death is also not always a bad thing. We cannot make it our practice to keep people alive at all costs, when the cost is destroying the possibility for future generations (of people and all the other life we need to survive).

I don't support "whatever it takes" to keep people from starving, since in my experience "whatever it takes" will amount ultimately to postponing useful death for useless death: nature culls what she cannot support; when we make her support what she would rather not without reservation, we eventually end up on the wrong side of the ledger she uses to maintain the balance that we all enjoy.

Ever since humans invented agriculture (and perhaps before), we have been pursuing the theory that individuals don't really matter. If I drop dead tomorrow, one of my 21 children will pick up the slack (and take my place on the field, in the factory, in the army, doing our bit to keep the human hive alive). Potato farmers in Ireland died not because of fungus, in my view, but because they were expendable resources (whose encroaching presence nature resisted: Ireland is not able to support infinite crowds of people; when we try to make it do so, it defends itself by putting out blights and such, culling the weak). This has always been Nature's way, and it will continue until we destroy her; as we speak, the ruthless goddess we all serve willy-nilly continues to pursue her savage justice, killing weak people all over the world. Trying to make her stop being so mean just throws fuel on the fire, if history is any judge: we beat a small plague so that we can have a bigger one. Smallpox, polio, and measles go down so that AIDS, superbugs, and "diseases of civilization" can take their place. There is no end in sight (for me: I am aware that some people see things differently, and I am content with that; this post is mostly just an exercise in verbalization for me; I have been keeping these thoughts inside too long).

I don't ask for mercy from Nature. I don't think I can control her. I don't think anyone can, really. The most we can realistically hope for, in my view, is finding a somewhat pleasant balance with Nature (by letting her have her own way as much as possible, with our contribution being a mitigation of her most painful "remedies" uncorked against us; let me die of AIDS, or some superbug, or diabetes, but at least I can say goodbye to my friends and go peacefully in a bed, with someone else there to close my eyes and hand my corpse back to the Mother (who resists my effort to last too long or leave too many descendants: she loves the individual, the small group, more than I do, perhaps)

If I could sum up my attitude in one sentence, it would be something like this: "Nature is beautiful, and she is trying to kill you; for your own good, you had better come quietly."

Monday, May 21, 2012

Michel's Iron Law of Oligarchy

D. Michael Quinn.  The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power. Signature: Salt Lake City, 1997.  ISBN: 1560850604.

This German sociologist [Robert Michel] argued that no matter how democratic and altruistic any movement is at its inception, "whoever says organization, says oligarchy."  Thus Mormonism became [in the words of Thomas O'Dea] "a democracy of participation and an oligarchy of decision-making and command"  (quoted from Quinn, p. 408).

My own (admittedly limited) experience with organizations (both personal and vicarious) confirms Michel's law.  The creation of authorities necessarily involves the creation of non-authorities: rulers create subjects, just as surely as subjects anoint rulers.  Some people long to rule just as much as others long to be ruled.  So we cannot really help scratching our mutual itch every now and then.

Two insights stand out to me in the wake of Quinn's book (which gives a clear, candid account of the LDS church hierarchy from its inception, covered in greater depth in a previous volume, to the end of the twentieth century).

First, human beings are just apes in suits.  We cannot really help ourselves.  We naturally group together, establish hierarchies, and play the game of currying favor.  (Even when we pointedly step away from the game, we are still playing, particularly when we do so in a forum where others can observe our action.)  There is no fundamental difference separating the antics chronicled by Quinn from similar behavior observed among baboons by Robert Sapolsky.  Yes, we wear clothes.  We talk.  We reason.  We keep trying to get things better.  Sometimes, we even succeed, but that does not fundamentally change the nature of the game we are playing--a game much older than our species.  My take-away message from this observation is that I should never expect more from people than they are capable of delivering.  It isn't fair to set an impossibly high standard for the suited ape, even if he sets it out there (rhetorically) for himself.  Of course he wants to do the right thing--to succeed where others have failed, to achieve heaven on earth (or whatever it is people want now)--but at the end of the day, this will always mean that he invites some people to subject themselves to others.  That is OK.  There is not much else he can do.  The human will has its limits: it is not really free; or perhaps better, whatever freedom it has comes along with overriding natural limits (without which it could not exist at all: we require some "slavery" in order to be "free" the same way we require immobility in order to move; without some built-in restriction, no joint experiences its full range of motion).  When some would-be boss promises you pie-in-the-sky as his employee, he is just doing what people do.  If you decide to take the contract, recognize beforehand that you are making a bet, a bet that might not pay off the way you expect.  Caveat emptor.  If you were born into a contract you never really picked, welcome to the club of life.  We all start out young and foolish.  The question is not why me? but what am I going to do about it?  Every ape will have his own answer, depending on his personal situation, and the choices, unfree as they are, do matter (though perhaps not always as much as some people would like to think: recovery from bad bets is easier if you don't beat yourself up over them more than you have to).

My second insight is that there are just two "core doctrines" of Mormonism (as I see it; it is fine if others think differently).  These are (1) follow the leader and (2) follow your gut.  Over the years, Mormon authorities, preachers, and apologists have said all kinds of contradictory things (about everything from the nature of God to what it means to be a member of the LDS church): the only things they agree on are that we should follow the Brethen and the Holy Spirit.  In theory, these things never conflict with one another; in practice, they are always conflicting (with the Spirit telling people all kinds of contradictory things: he made Hugh B. Brown a liberal and Ezra Taft Benson a Bircher; Mitt Romney is still trying to figure out how to straddle both sides without coming across as too lukewarm for Jesus freaks, who may or may not be Mormon in this era where Latter-day Saints do their best to look like Southern Baptists). 

What interested me most about Quinn's book was learning about all the different governing quorums the LDS church has had.  Growing up in the post-correlation church (thanks for overturning my applecart, Harold B. Lee!), I learned that the First Presidency was supreme from the beginning (by divine appointment).  It was a revelation to see that it is really just one of a sea of competing quorums: at one time or another, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the First Quorum of the Seventy, the Presiding Bishopric, the Presiding Patriarch, and the Council of Fifty all bid fair (at least on paper) to take the First Presidency's job (or at least some of their most important jobs: another revelation was the amount of secular work required to keep the church up and running).  To make a long story short, we could say that Brigham Young castrated these quorums: sending people on missions and failing to convene the Council of Fifty regularly so that he became a de facto autocrat.  Not everyone appreciated his high-handedness:
"Some of my brethren, as I have learned since the death of President Brigham Young, did have feelings concerning his course.  They did not approve of it, and felt opposed, and yet they dare not exhibit their feelings to him, he ruled with so strong and stiff a hand, and they felt that it would be of no use.  In a few words, the feeling seems to be that he transcended the bounds of the authority which he legitimately held.  I have been greatly surprised to find so much dissatisfaction in such quarters" (George Q. Cannon, quoted in Quinn, pp. 40-41).
This kind of "quiet" resistance and dissonance goes on through church history, with leaders pretending to present a united front in public even as they often disagree irreconcilably over church policy and doctrine in private (though occasionally circumstances flushed the disagreement out into the open, as when Ezra Taft Benson's strident political views drew pointed condemnation from fellow church leaders Harold B. Lee and Hugh B. Brown).  From my point of view, the most disturbing aspect of this dynamic is not its existence but the careful pretense that it does not exist.

As a member of the church, I would like to know that some church leaders were decidedly opposed to Henry D. Moyle's missionary program (which caused me grief as a missionary, even with its worst aspects removed).  It was kind of hard when I was supposed to swallow this program as the unproblematic will of God; it would have been very helpful (to me, to the non-members I interacted with as a missionary, and ultimately to the church) if I had known that it wasn't.  The unity of the Brethren behind this program was a facade, a polite fiction designed to protect my fragile testimony (too weak to deal with reality, apparently: how was I supposed to grow up and behave responsibly if I was never to know what I was really doing? whose plan I was really following? what engineers in-the-know thought about it? would you ask a man to drive a car confidently if some of the technicians who inspected it found it seriously defective? why am I supposed to care more about the condition of my appliances than that of my soul?).

As a member of the church, I would have liked to know the real reason that black males did not receive the priesthood until 1978.  Other LDS authorities were ready to give black men the priesthood as early as 1969, but Harold B. Lee vetoed their motion.  God had to wait for his prophet to die before He could get the priesthood ban lifted.  This is not exactly how I imagined revelation working as a little kid in Sunday School, but it sure offers a more reasonable way to deal with honest inquiries than the squirrelly narrative I was stuck shilling as a missionary.  (We saw quite a few black people in northern Spain, most of them African, and if the subject of the ban came up, we found ourselves saying, "We have no idea why God waited so long to treat you like human beings.  You'll have to take it up with Him, eh?"  This always sounded lame to me.  Now I know why.  It's a cheap rhetorical trick, known commonly as the lie.  The fact that I came by it honestly does not change what it is.)

As a result of my experience in the LDS church, I have learned something about myself.  I don't like being played like a fool.  If you want to play me, fine.  Play me.  Bribe me.  Order me.  Lie to me, even, if you think that is the best way to get what you want.  But if you want me to trust you, tell the truth.  Don't pretend that you aren't really bribing me, that you aren't giving orders, that lies are true, or that I owe you trust that you never earn.  Don't try to play me, hoping I won't notice, and then try to pretend that you weren't really playing me, and that I shouldn't get all mad about it.  I may be dumb, but I'm not that dumb, and you aren't either.  A hunter respects his game, and a player can too.

To close out, I offer three short passages from Quinn that I really enjoyed:
(1) At the turn of the century J. Golden Kimball candidly complained that among the general authorities, "some men will kiss a man's ass to get to suck a sugar tit.  I would rather have the Courage to express my honest convictions" (quoted in Quinn, p. 17).  
Amen, Brother Kimball.  We need more like you.  Bring back the honest apes in suits!
(2) After his appointment to the First Council of Seventy in 1945, S. Dilworth Young stated his philosophy: "You must work through the Spirit.  If that leads you into conflict with the program of the Church, you follow the voice of the Spirit" (quoted in Quinn, p. 17).
This is certainly not the easiest road, but it feels right.  I have said before that I didn't leave the church as much as it left me.  The Spirit calls me to tell the truth as I see it and let the cards fall where they may.  When I ignore the truth, or worse, pretend that I see it otherwise than I do, I feel awful.
(3) Subordinates have sometimes been assigned to implement decisions they previously opposed and only reluctantly assented to ... When the Presidency assigned Apostle Mark E. Petersen in 1960 to form the stake he voted against organizing, Second Counselor Henry D. Moyle quipped, "Funny church, isn't it?" (quoted in Quinn, 18).
Yes, Brother Moyle, it is a funny church!  And that is as it should be.  The worst things happen when we take it all too seriously.  Today, I seriously think that religion should be a game: apes in suits, doing their little dances and pretending to fathom the mysteries of all existence (even as they come up with new ways to have fun and help each other: no one said they shouldn't have parties, or that these parties shouldn't be organized somehow, but there is no reason to take the organizers more seriously than their track record warrants).  The church is like the pub: a sacred institution where men (and women) can gather to be solemn or silly, sober or drunk, loud or quiet, depending on the circumstances.  There is no one true pub (pace my friends at the Cat's Cradle), and there is no point insisting that all pubs be the same (or pretending that some pubs have the magic property of making their denizens behave like gods instead of suited apes).  If we must have oligarchs, we must also be free to make fun of them, especially when they insist on tripping over the same banana peel over and over again.  ("I really am infallible!  Just watch me.  This time .... woops!")  People need to realize that they should question their leaders at least as often and as closely as they question themselves.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Getting What You Pay For

The past few years have been really hard for me, in some ways.  At the end of them, I am left in a rather awkward position.  On the one hand, I feel hopelessly alienated from the Corporation of the President that runs the LDS church.  On the other hand, I recognize that this Corporation is not really that bad, as corporations go.  Let me explain what I am talking about.

Recently, an LDS friend sent me a list of good things that the LDS church does.  That list offers as a good an entry as any into my subject.  Here it is (summarized in bold for brevity's sake: the original was rather long).

(1) The church does humanitarian work.  This is true, as far as it goes.  Since my disaffection, I have actually been more involved than I ever was in this aspect of church service, and I find it generally more satisfying than teaching classes about the imaginary righteousness of Joseph Smith.  Working in the bishop's storehouse has been a learning experience for me.

(2) The church sponsors the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  This is true, too, and I am not one of those people who doesn't like the choir.  I appreciate their music, and I think it represents a valuable cultural offering.

(3) The church sponsors pageants (like the Nauvoo Pageant or the Cumorah Pageant).  This is true.  I remember attending the Manti Pageant with my wife before we got married.  It was fun, and I am glad that we did it.

(4) The church sponsors Brigham Young University (BYU), a cheap place to go for a great education.  As a graduate of BYU, I agree with this one too.  I don't regret my alma mater (too much, anyway): without it, I would never have met my wife, or many of the friends who have had a formative, positive impact on my life over the last 10 years.  If I had to go back and be an undergraduate again, I might still choose to attend BYU, even if I went as a non-Mormon.

(5) The church helps people (like homosexuals) find righteous ways of living.  Here is where my cart of apples topples over (or starts to tip, anyway).  My friend references an article about Ty and Danielle Mansfield getting married "the right way" even though Ty is sexually attracted to men rather than women.  I do not disapprove of Ty and Danielle's decision to marry.  But I cannot hear their story without thinking of other stories I have heard over the past few years, stories of men like Ty who were advised to marry women without telling them that their husbands-to-be were sexually attracted to men.  Some of these men ended up stuck in family relationships that were untenable (having been built on a lie: they should have told their wives what they were signing up for).  Other men were given "shock therapy" -- strapped to electric chairs and zapped while watching homosexual pornography.  These things took place at BYU.  

To the Corporation's credit, I understand it has dropped its original, aggressive program for "correcting" homosexuality.  Convincing people like Ty to marry heterosexually of their own volition is an improvement over tying them to a chair, making them watch pornography, and electrocuting them.  But I am not convinced that Ty's solution is the solution for all people: if one of my sons ends up being gay, I would not advise him to take Ty's path without giving some serious thought to alternatives (though I would certainly accept him if he chose it for himself: my one stipulation would be that his wife-to-be understand her position as the spouse of a gay man).  I don't think it is moral to require celibacy of people.  (Historically this doesn't seem to work as a universal prescription, though individuals may do well with it.)  I don't think it is moral to require heterosexuality of them, either.  I don't see why homosexuals cannot have committed relationships with people to whom they are sexually attracted.  I would not want society to force me to marry someone I was not attracted to, and I am unwilling to demand for others what I would not choose for myself.

My real problem with the Corporation is not that it does no good, or that it treats homosexuals differently than I would (though that has the potential to be a real problem).  To get at my personal beef with the Corporation of the President, let's consider a really evil corporation, a corporation that makes the LDS church leaders look like Saints.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Monsanto.

Like the Corporation of the President, Monsanto offers services.  It has happy customers (including me and various nice people I know) who have voluntarily paid for these services and derived (as they thought) some benefit therefrom (less weeds, less bugs eating plant crops, hardier plant crops, etc.).  Like every company, including the Corporation of the President, Monsanto markets itself to the community (with ad campaigns and "missionaries").  The more happy customers it gets, the bigger it grows.  The bigger it grows, the more money (and social power) it has.  At some point, it is so large that some people are involved with it not for the services per se, but for the chance to make a killing when the company gets even bigger.  (It becomes an investment.)  The services are still important, but they become more and more abstract and universal (everyone should buy Monsanto!  Monsanto for all your farming and gardening needs, whether you live here, there, or anywhere).  The power of the individual customer cannot help but shrink in this environment: the bigger Monsanto gets, the less it cares what I think or do.  As long as it has millions of happy customers, why should it care what I think?  It answers to the market, not the customer, and its first business concern is reserved for shareholders rather than customers.  This is to some degree inevitable.

Every corporation comes with a downside.  There is no such thing as profit without loss.  Winning requires losing.  (If I want to be a great athlete, I have to lose time and energy.  Same thing if I want to become a great scholar, or parent, or businessperson.  Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.)  Unfortunately for Monsanto, its downside is enormous.  It is destroying the environment that humanity requires in order to survive: the handy-dandy products it sells to happy customers destroy beneficial insects (especially honey bees) and represent a serious threat to healthy biodiversity worldwide.  Maybe this is a good thing.  Maybe the synthetic reality Monsanto sells us to replace the natural one they are destroying will end up being superior.  But I seriously doubt it.  I doubt the Monsanto engineers' ability to play God successfully.  I would feel safer if they went out of business sooner rather than later.

What does this have to do with the LDS Corporation of the President?  Well, first off, it shows that it is never enough to look at the good things an organization does while ignoring the bad things that it does.  The downside is more important than the upside, really: the benefits of Monsanto's products are no good to dead people.  Like Monsanto, the Corporation of the President has a downside, and no one should take part in the Corporation without knowing that downside (or at least having the opportunity to know it).  I have written some about the downside of the Corporation of the President in this blog as it has affected me personally.

In brief, my grievance with the Corporation of the President is that it was not honest with me.  It didn't come to me and demand obeisance because it was a good humanitarian organization, or a good investment if I wanted to attend an excellent school with low tuition.  It demanded obeisance because God appeared to its founder and maintained a special relationship with his successors in its corporate hierarchy.  I was very interested in the history of the founder and the nature of the hierarchy's special relationship with God -- too interested, as it turns out.  Putting aside how others might view my experience (which is not universal), the fact is that I personally feel betrayed by the Corporation.  I believed that it was what it advertised itself to be in my Primary classes, my Sunday School classes, my seminary classes, and even my BYU religion classes (though by then I was starting to see the cracks in the mirror).  I believed that its techniques for improving human morals worked, and I applied these techniques dutifully to myself -- until I realized that I was weakening my morality rather than strengthening it.  I wasn't in the church because I wanted pageants or good school on the cheap or a place to coordinate humanitarian work (which I did not get seriously involved with until my disaffection).  I was in it for an upside that didn't exist: I though it would make a calm, capable, moral, upstanding person; instead, I became a nervous wreck.  While I am still something of a basket-case, I feel better (emotionally, physically, and "spiritually") since ceasing to believe in the supernatural claims of the Corporation and renouncing my efforts to conform to its program for moral improvement.

As a result of my experience, I see the Corporation of the President from a vantage point that will seem strange to believers and non-believers alike whose experience with the LDS church is not like mine.  That is OK.  I do not expect everyone to be just like me.  I do not think that would make the world a better place, really.  Unlike many disaffected Mormons, I am not really very angry at the church.  The worst things it did to me were mostly things I did to myself, and recovering from them (in my case -- I am aware that others are not always so fortunate) did not require that much beyond a personal readjustment.  I lost no family.  I didn't even lose any friends.  The only things I lost were things I was glad to get rid of: misdirected shame and fear, and a moral duty to put the Corporation before my conscience.

Today, I see the Corporation of the President as a relatively harmless company in our society.  If all companies came handicapped the way it is (by its known history and its respect for individual decisions to opt in or not), then we would be pretty safe.  But unfortunately, there are other fish out there, man-eating sharks like Monsanto (which is coming to eat you for breakfast, willy-nilly).  Combating these companies requires a lot of resources: time, talents, and such -- time and talents that I will not have disposable if I am spending hours of every week learning and teaching the gospel of Joseph Smith.  While others' experience is doubtless different, my experience with the church has been that it spends an inordinate amount of time and effort on the parts of the gospel that I now find utterly unconvincing (and often worse than useless).  We LDS aren't working in the bishop's storehouse on Sunday: we're getting together to talk about history that never happened, strategies for moral improvement that don't work (at least not as advertised), and (hopefully! if we're lucky) some music and socialization.  I don't want the history or the strategies (they make me sick), and I can get music and socialization elsewhere (maybe even in a place like the bishop's storehouse).  The situation is even bleaker if I am good and attend to all my LDS duties outside of Sunday worship.  Let's assume I study scriptures daily, work on my genealogy, go home-teaching, receive home-teachers, and attend leadership meetings outside of regular worship services.  I also have a full-time job.  How am I supposed to develop a program for living well?  How am I supposed to have a personal life?  How am I supposed to come up with a viable alternative to the mess that is Monsanto?  It is easier to get things done when I am not loaded down with busywork.  Instead of spending more time sitting around talking about history that isn't really history and strategies for moral improvement that don't really work, I can grow a garden, take up bee-keeping, volunteer at a soup-kitchen, or relax with friends who don't care how I see the church.  Some people can juggle better than I can, no doubt, but that doesn't mean that I should drop things that I find really compelling in exchange for things that have no obvious value for me.

Paradoxically, I find myself agreeing with Dallin Oaks (and, less paradoxically, with Voltaire): "We have to forego some good things in order to choose others that are better" (or as Voltaire has it, le mieux est l'ennemi du bien).  My circumstances make the upside of being an active LDS relatively small, especially when you consider that I am not really able to do what the LDS church does best (and most often): teach myth as history and current church disciplinary practices as effective psychotherapy.  The man-eating shark in the room here is Monsanto and other companies like it, which profit from the inaction of people like me -- "happy" customers too busy (too distracted by busywork?) to notice that their herbicides and pesticides come at a horrible price.  If we talked about useful stuff at church, like how to grow crops or keep bees, then I might consider going back.

Today, I see the LDS church as family: they are the ornery old uncle, who means well and does some good but has an unfortunate tendency to mouth off at family gatherings (and even get into fist fights).  I don't want the church to die.  I think it could be better than it is, and I encourage it to keep striving for the ideal it aims at in much of its rhetoric.  Monsanto, on the other hand, is evil: they are the psychopathic serial killer who has no compunction about destroying anyone or anything to get what they want.  I would be very happy if their business died.  The hatred and disdain I feel for them is much less conflicted than my feelings for the LDS church.  (Paradoxically, it is much harder for me to disentangle myself from Monsanto than from the LDS.  The really dangerous bastards are the ones you cannot get rid of simply by smiling and closing the door.)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

My Bona Fides

Several people have asked me why I implicitly trust "anti-Mormons" more than Mormons.  I do not believe that I do.  As an adult, the only thing I must trust is myself: I really don't have much choice on this one.  If I cannot believe my own eyes (heart, mind, and soul), then I have an insuperable problem.  My trust of others depends on how their presentation of reality coheres with mine.

Like every child, I began life trusting my parents.  I still trust them, though they have taught me not to rely on them for everything, because they are good parents.  Today, I love and respect them, and I trust them enough to tell them how I really feel about things, even when I know that our feelings are not perfectly matched.  I don't expect them to have all the answers to my life's questions: that would be unrealistic (and uncalled for; growing up means learning to find and implement answers for oneself responsibly).  When it comes to Mormon history, I will admit that I tend to look past my parents, not because they are untrustworthy people, but because they have not made an extensive study of Mormon history.  That is perfectly OK.  I respect that.  (They don't ask me for advice with their cars, because I have not made an extensive study of car engines.  I hope that is OK, too, since I don't see my knowledge of practical mechanics increasing dramatically any time soon.)  The fundamental trust that I have for my parents comes down to their motives: I expect them to mean me well, always.  I don't question the goodness of their intentions every time they offer me something.  I hope they can say the same for me.  I do my best to ensure that they can.

Since I have been blessed with a good family, I trust my other family members much the same way that I trust my parents.  I believe that the people close to me mean me well.  This is even true of my little sons, whose occasional assaults on their parents' well-being come from ignorance rather than malice.

There have been a few people with whom I have dealt who have seemed untrustworthy.  Most often, these were people I interacted with sporadically (occasionally by choice: I realized I did not like them and took measures to avoid dealing with them).  I am not sure that my lack of trust has always been justified, and I don't pretend to condemn anyone forever on the basis of my suspicions (even when they have proven entirely justified by historical events).

So much for my personal acquaintance.  Outside of that relatively narrow sphere, the game changes considerably.  For brevity's sake, let's talk about the LDS church.  I don't know anyone in the governing church hierarchy.  I have no personal connection to the prophets, seers, and revelators (or their most immediate henchmen).  I don't know how they do business day-to-day, and I don't pretend that they aren't perfectly good fathers, grandfathers, or businessmen.  As a result of my personal and professional interests in Mormonism and history, I have accidentally come to a place where I must pass judgment on their ability as theologians and historians.  The facts that I have for doing this do not exist in the same category as angry partisan rumors floating around during an election year.  To demonstrate that this is true, I will offer a few examples:

(1)  There is no serious question whether Joseph Smith did or did not marry multiple women, including some who were quite young.  He did.  There is no serious question whether he did or did not destroy a printing press that was used to bring some of his sexual hijinks to light.  He did.  How one chooses to view his character in light of these facts is a matter of personal opinion, but it is no good pretending that he did not practice polygamy or make a deliberate attack on American freedom of speech.

(2)  There is no serious question that the purported source of the Book of Abraham is an Egyptian funeral text much more recent than Abraham (assuming the latter existed as an historical personage).  There is no serious question that it says nothing about Abraham, and Joseph Smith's interpretations of the facsimiles are patently bogus: in simple English, they say nothing like what Joseph Smith said they say.  How we choose to react to this information is a matter of personal decision, but it is impossible for me to pretend (i) that I was not interested in the papyrus, (ii) that I did not learn a thing or two about ancient Egyptian, and (iii) that Joseph Smith had no idea how to translate it.

(3)  There is no serious question whether prophets, seers, and revelators today are aware of facts like the two I just presented.  At one point or another, they have seen the same materials that I have seen, and they have made their own decision about how best to deal with problematic aspects of Mormon history.

(4)  Unfortunately, there is no question that the official stance of modern prophets, seers, and revelators regarding problematic Mormon history has been that people like me should be kept in the dark regarding facts like those in numbers (1) and (2) above.  I grew up attending Primary and Sunday School every week.  I took four years of seminary.  I served a full-time mission for the Corporation of the President.  Never, in any church publication, did I find even a hint of facts like those above in numbers (1) and (2).  If I did get a whiff of them, they were presented as utterly baseless slander.  I assumed this was correct.  I trusted church leaders.  When people came to me (as a teenager, as a college student, and later as a missionary) with problematic information about Mormon history, I sent them to check their facts.

Then, I grew up.  I went to school.  I was confident that I knew the difference between fact and slander.  (I remain confident of my ability in this regard.)  I looked into the historical record, bypassing the simplified accounts I learned as a child.  I assumed that this would be unproblematic, as it had been before: when I was little, my mother read a children's version of the Bible to us; later, I read the real thing for myself and found it not much different from what she read.  I assumed church leaders had summarized Mormon history the same way, i.e. such that I would recognize the stories I was familiar with when I turned to the real record (upon which those stories were supposedly based).  Unfortunately, they did not.  Worse, the discrepancies were most telling in the most critical parts of the stories I learned as a child: e.g. the story of the First Vision, the story of Nauvoo (which we didn't really get in seminary, it turns out), and the story of Deseret (the early Mormon theocracy in the Rocky Mountains). 

(5)  Honestly, the hardest fact for me to deal with peaceably in this litany is the fact that I trusted church leaders to tell me the truth and that they deliberately hid it from me (or at the very least, they hid crucial data that should have informed my decision to believe or not in their claim to divine authority).  Not only did they hide stuff from me, they used me as a tool to infect others with false information.  To this day I recall with shame an encounter I had with two gypsies in the city of La Coruna in northern Spain (where I served an LDS mission).  These gentlemen were evangelical preachers, and they felt a duty to warn two Mormon missionaries of the error of their ways.  They were not very articulate or genteel: when they weren't out preaching, they might have been mechanics or day laborers.  When they brought up the story of the First Vision, they told it wrong (with just one heavenly messenger approaching Joseph Smith: they were confident that this must have been the devil).  Thinking I knew my history from years of study in the church, I informed them that they must be mistaken, since Joseph Smith did not see just one personage.  The confrontation ended (as it usually does in these instances, with neither side moved), and my companion and I retired elated with victory.  We were correcting misinformation, spreading the word of truth, and growing the kingdom of God.  How bitter it was for me, recalling this incident, when I discovered the multiple accounts of the First Vision -- including one earlier than the "official" version (published in the Pearl of Great Price) that had Joseph receiving a visit from a single heavenly messenger.  Those evangelical hicks knew something about my history that I didn't know.  I lied to them.  I told them they had bad information when I was the one whose facts were wrong.  That hurts.

The information that the church "hides" to create liars like me (more effective because we think we are being honest) is not really hidden, of course.  Richard Bushman published a lot of it in Rough Stone Rolling (which I have talked about elsewhere on this blog).  I freely admit that I could have found it, even as a teenager, if I had had any desire to supplement my lessons in church.  For better or worse, I didn't get around to verifying the bona fides of the Corporation of the President until relatively late in the game, i.e. after I had already consecrated myself, my time, my talents, and any other assets I might have to that corporation and had begun to make good on that solemn promise.  Today, it seems really obvious to me that I put way too much trust in the prophets, seers, and revelators of the LDS church (whom I did not really know), and that they betrayed that trust.  When I see them in the spotlight today, they don't seem at all repentant or forthcoming.  While that does not make them utterly unreliable people in every aspect of their lives, it does mean that I am done trusting them with the integrity of my soul.  I already tried that, and it ended badly.  Why stick my hand back in the bear trap?