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?

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