Friday, June 29, 2012

Common Human Decency

The following represents my initial response to a friend inquiring about certain observations he has made of different Mormon and post-Mormon communities (particularly communities in which certain potentially problematic behaviors occur).  My friend was interested in questions like these: What does it mean to be Mormon, post-Mormon, ex-Mormon?  How is Mormonism coherent?  How can a good Mormon, post-Mormon, or ex-Mormon community thrive?  What does healthy Mormon, post-Mormon, and ex-Mormon behavior look like?  I am not trying to answer any of these questions definitively, so please don't anyone jump on me for being too harsh or ignoring an important point of view.  These are just some rambling thoughts I have had, and I am writing them here now because I am stuck in an airport with nothing better to do.

The LDS church is not a coherent organization. Mormons are not correlated. They maintain a semblance of order and coherence by wearing the same clothes, saying the same things in church, etc., and believing that all of this is cosmically important somehow.  While there are some doctrines that leaders like to push as true explanations of Mormon behavior that they want to correlate, the truth on the ground is that people get baptized, serve missions, and go to the temple for a plethora of unique and personal reasons.  They come to the church for different reasons.  They practice ordinances for different reasons.  They find Mormonism compelling for different reasons.

In my view, many Mormons inside the LDS church follow Jesus' admonition to be like little children.  They are genuinely sweet, well-meaning, and adorable, but they are also naive -- and capable of growing up into anything from the Dalai Lama to Adolf Hitler.  As a general rule, growth is good. Maturity is good. But it is also dangerous: teenagers are proof of this. When you take the LDS blinders off of adult "children" in the church, many of them don't know how to respond. They try everything (e.g. drinking, swinging), and it doesn't always end up well. But here's the rub: many people fall into the same behaviors inside the church (without having existential crises or "coming of age" as adults). There is, quite frankly, no place on earth where you can escape the fact that you make decisions, and that those decisions don't always lead to the results you would like. The most we can hope for is that people will learn from their decisions, especially the bad ones.

The church attempts to help people learn by scaring them away from "bad" decisions. (Unfortunately, some of the things it is scared of are emphatically not bad, like coffee or honest history.)  But this is not really a workable solution for many folks (and it is even worse for society at large than the alternative, which is to admit that mistakes are always going to be made, and to take steps for dealing with them that do not involve pretending that we can make them vanish by heroic acts of willpower). Imagine how my life would be if I decided to train my toddlers to rely on me for all their bathroom needs forever. At some point, the little tykes need to learn how to wipe their own butts, even if they occasionally get some poop on their hands.  It washes off.  Rebellious teens grow up, in most cases, to be nice, responsible adults.  They learn the law of the harvest ("if I want these results, I need to cultivate this kind of behavior").  People need to make mistakes in order to learn and grow.  They need to "fall" the way Eve falls, partaking of the tree and accepting the good and the evil that comes with that.  Much as some of the overprotective among us would like to keep our fellow humans from learning in the school of hard knocks, there really is no other way.  A man who is only faithful to his wife (or anyone) because he thinks some celestial bureaucrat is watching at all times has not learned what fidelity means.  He doesn't know what virtue is until he gets acquainted with vice (on some level: I am not saying that we must all experiment with everything that presents itself to any one of us, only that we have to be free to do so).

Lack of failure actually explains many of the problems in our LDS culture. Striving with all our might to avoid failure, what we really do is avoid understanding it when it occurs (inevitably).  We create textbook examples of what Nassim Taleb calls the lucky fool.  The lucky fool has a good life, and he thinks he knows exactly how he got to be so lucky.  He knows what clothes to wear, what friendships to cultivate, what books to read, what kind of sex to have, what to drink, where to work, etc.  Wanting to help the rest of the community out, he gives terrible advice to other people, not because he means badly (quite the contrary), but because he cannot see that his circumstances are not universal.  He cannot see that wearing a tie has nothing to do with his success, that reading a particular book has nothing do with it, that his method of having sex is not a panacea for all human ills.  LDS Mormonism is a rampant breeding ground for lucky fools: they become our leaders.  When their advice fails, they have no response other than to deny that protocols were properly followed ("you must not have been wearing my lucky tie right -- no sacrament for you!"). They have no idea how to deal productively with failure.  Preaching shame and fear doesn't really work: the "bad" kids don't buy it, and the "good" ones do themselves more harm than good by taking it seriously.  Instead of facilitating personal evaluation and adjustment, it hardens moral positions that are already there: the "bad" kids learn that they are hopeless rebels, and they revel in being wicked; the "good" kids learn that they are hopeless rebels, and their hearts are broken.  What they don't learn is how to change themselves.

A really wise man once said that there is no such thing in life as success or failure, only feedback. The way to cure lucky fools is to let them see that success and failure are just the same thing -- that there is no such thing as success without failure! People need to make mistakes. And just as we all have (and need) different kinds of success, so we all have (and need) different kinds of failure. Some people need to get drunk and throw up everywhere at least once. Others need to sleep around. Some of us just need a nice cup of Turkish coffee and a book chock full of intelligent heresy. As there is not a single perfect blueprint for success, so there is not a single perfect blueprint for failure. Each man must craft his own perfect catastrophe as a catalyst for future success. Every Eve must eat her own apple. I cannot prescribe one for you, and yours will not necessarily do anything for me. The "God-shaped hole" some people speak of in the soul of every man is one that each person must fill for himself. Some of us will not approve for ourselves what others choose to fill the hole: even among the most correlated Mormons, this is true; I think back to missionary companions I did not see eye-to-eye with. Humans thrive on tension, opposition, and the like ("there must needs be opposition in all things"). The key is to leverage this feature creatively rather than destructively.  You have to take people's communal incoherence and let it grow into something ordered.

As I see it, when Mormons question their childlike faith, they enter a radically new world. Some of them are going to grow slowly. Some are going to grow up fast. Some are going to require one kind of failure to facilitate their growth; others will require a different kind.  Some are going to make their friends blush (or find new friends), and others are going to make friends proud.  There is no coherent, unitary, sanitary post-Mormonism (speaking globally).  So what is a decent post- or ex-Mormon chap supposed to do?  How should he address his fellow doubters or unbelievers?  What kind of moral standards can he get behind?  How can he preach effectively, usefully, to people who no longer fit the church's model of obedient little children?  If it were me, I would just preach what I deemed to be correct principles, throw in the necessary caveats ("nothing I say trumps your personal experience"), and then let people govern themselves. I wouldn't have organized groups or a "brand" or any of that stuff.  That just creates unnecessary opportunities for people to make unhelpful generalizations ("All post-Mormons are drunks, whores, etc., because I know this one person somewhere who did something that destroyed his life!").  Personally, I am not at all opposed to communities (whether they unite around faith or doubt, which seem like the same thing to me now).  I do not think these communities should be centralized or correlated: let the people living in them run them (as informal meet-ups or formal affairs with constitutions, by-laws, the whole nine yards: whatever the different communities want). If individuals want to drink, or swing, or whatever, then it's on them (not any guru or podcaster or other "authoritative" figure: grown-ups have to wipe their own butts).

There are limits in each one of us to what we can pleasantly endure in ourselves and other people.  The hardest lessons to unlearn, I think, are visceral ones. Let me be honest and make myself vulnerable to illustrate the point. I think of homosexuals having sex, holding hands, kissing, etc., and I just want to barf -- not because of God (whom I don't really believe in as a person), or because I am a mean person (I like to think: I haven't ever attacked anyone for being gay, and I don't go around persecuting them). There is something deeper there, something integral to me that sees homosexuality and screams, "That is not for you, buddy!" As a good little Mormon, I learned that my deepest feelings (like this one) were the voice of God speaking to me (this is OK, so far), and that He had the same plan for me and everyone else (this is emphatically wrong: whatever the universe was thinking when it devised all of us, it did not make us to be carbon copies of each other).  Many people whose intellects have left fanatical Mormonism still have their minds planted there firmly.  They still barf when they see homosexuals (or swingers or drinkers), and they naively expect everyone else to barf, too. But it isn't going to happen. It shouldn't happen (for reasons that become apparent when we look at the lives of people who have needs and experiences very different from our own).

The underlying question here is simple: how do we come together harmoniously when we are not all exactly (or even remotely) alike? There are many viable answers. (1) Sometimes, we simply don't come together. I don't go to gay bars, and I probably never will. That's OK! I don't think the gay bars need to worry about making themselves more attractive to clientele like me. I don't expect or want them to. I want them to do their thing: I just don't want to be part of it. (2) When we do come together, we create boundaries (the laws of the group): in order make sense and cause minimum damage, these boundaries need to be local -- something that individual friends and acquaintances hash out face to face.  (3) On a global level -- where huge, geographically and culturally diverse groups like the LDS church or the audience of a popular podcast exist -- the only things that work are principles. The principles have to be rigid enough to mean something, while still being flexible enough to accomodate the vast differences in that far-flung audience.  They can be, and it is not really as hard as one might think.  Take fidelity, for instance.  In itself, all fidelity means is trust, honor, integrity, honesty.  It doesn't mean that no one should ever drink or have sex with multiple partners or whatever.  It means that if I promise not to drink, or have sex, or leave a chalk circle I have drawn around my feet, I will abide by that promise.  Fidelity inevitably looks different to different people.  That is OK.  Some people will swing (or drink or be gay) and still be honorable, upstanding folk. And some will lie and reveal themselves as toxic (to anyone who gets too close: you cannot trust a liar; even if you try to, you don't really).

In summary, let me invoke and enlarge upon an analogy my friend made. Imagine that we are all sailing about helter-skelter on rafts washing in life's currents. The LDS church tries to be a kind of lighthouse, pointing out the dangerous rocks that threaten to sink us. Unfortunately, some of us find that the church's beacons are too far inland to offer us really useful protection.  So the  enterprising spirits among us try to make salvation more accessible, building new lighthouses directly over the rocks we have discovered and pointing them out clearly to fellow travelers.  Some travelers see our new beacons and appreciate them. At the end of the day, however, people are always going to crash their rafts. It's what people do. The most any of us can do (whether in or out of the LDS church) is help folks prepare well on their own for the inevitable.  We don't need to make ourselves absolute moral authorities, providing the universal blueprint for every human life: I can live my truth without being threatened by yours.  The one thing we cannot do is lie.  I have to be honest with you, and with the community, about who I am, what I want from the community, and what I am willing to contribute to it.  Joseph Smith died largely because he was not willing to let people in the community expose lies that he and several people close to him were telling.  In my view, it was the lies that brought him down more than any of the other questionable behaviors in which he was engaged.  (I am not saying that those behaviors were not problematic, only that they were not necessarily problematic, if he went about them honestly, e.g. asking men and women point blank if they would be willing to admit him as an active third wheel in their marriage.)  People are willing to forgive an honest deviant: if I walk into a gay bar and some man propositions me, I choke back my puke and say, "Thanks, but no thanks."  If I walk into a public restroom at the airport and am groped without my consent, I go ballistic.

As my wife says to our toddlers, "Use your words, and keep your hands to yourself!"  If they can do it (and learn to wipe their butts, too), then so can grown men and women.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Defending the Indefensible

Recently, there has been a shake-up at the Maxwell Institute, where I used to imagine myself working as late as 5-6 years ago (back when it was still FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies).  LDS apologist Dan Peterson was fired as editor of the Mormon Studies Review.  Peterson retains his position as a BYU professor (for the present, as far as I know).

Peterson's experience inspires me to give voice to some thoughts I have had bumping around in my head for a while, struggling to get out coherently.

First, a little historical background.  From my perspective, the current debacle is an outgrowth of Hugh Nibley's aggressive apologetic position (especially vis-a-vis the character of Joseph Smith) becoming outworn, largely owing to the emergence of new evidence (e.g. the reappearance of court documents showing that the young Joseph Smith was convicted of disorderly conduct for his treasure-seeking activities). Richard Bushman pretty much cedes to every major argument against Smith that Nibley disdainfully dismisses (in The Myth Makers, for example), quietly admitting that Smith was a money-digger (without a pristine reputation), a folk magician, and an active polygamist where Nibley offered nothing but blustering denials ("if that were true, if the documents ever did turn up, then it would be curtains for Smith's character!"). Nibley's confidence proved overblown (the documents did turn up, and Smith was not soundly vindicated the way we hoped he would be), and his modern acolytes are stuck with a truculent posture that they can only maintain in the teeth of facts that cooler heads (like Bushman) have already admitted to be largely bulletproof.  Today, we can argue whether a polygamous folk magician might be prophetic (as Bushman does), but we can no longer pretend that Joseph Smith was not necessarily a polygamous folk magician (as Nibley did, before the evidence started coming in).  This puts the "old guard" of LDS Mormon apologists, the heirs of Nibley's position, in a tricky place.

Historically, apologetics is not a "nice" field.  Lacking any obvious facts to justify their positions, apologists often resort to character assassination (arguments ad hominem), attacking their opponents as wicked or absurd.  This was true in the pamphlet wars of the Reformation, when Protestants lambasted Catholic clergy and rival sectarians as devils incarnate, and it remains true today (in more arenas than just Mormon apologetics: often the only political argument offered for a given position is that the people opposing it are evil scumbags).  As something of a "founder" in modern LDS apologetics, Nibley embraced character assassination, e.g. in his dismissive evaluation of Fawn Brodie's work.  But he had more to offer than polemical attacks directed against "anti-Mormons" (who are often better ignored than "refuted" -- especially when their facts are actually correct): his best work articulates a unique personal vision of what Mormonism is (or at least, what it could be).  Today, when further research has vindicated Brodie over Nibley (as the more honest historian), Nibley's creative work (e.g. Approaching Zion, Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, The Ancient State, and even Temple and Cosmos) still has value -- as cultural critique, satire, and poetry (not entirely without merit from a dispassionate historical perspective, though the "ancient truths" Nibley talks about are less unique to Mormonism than he makes out).  Unfortunately, none of Nibley's successors at FARMS (the Maxwell Institute) inherited his role as creative social critic (or philosopher): while they may make creative contributions outside of LDS apologetics (to history and/or literature), their defense of Mormonism is entirely passive, reactive, and (inevitably) reactionary.  They cultivate the argument ad hominem, e.g. attacking Grant Palmer as a heretic rather than admit that he might have any kind of useful contribution to make.  (They were a little nicer to Todd Compton, though their "critique" is really just a complaint that he is not faith-promoting -- a complaint to which he has self-published a very nice rebuttal that Peterson's FARMS refused to run.  Incidentally, I think that Compton is a much better apologist for Mormonism -- and more of an heir to whatever remains worth preserving in the legacy of Nibley -- than anyone at the Maxwell Institute.  He writes books that speak to scholars, Mormons, and non-Mormons alike.  He has a creative perspective on Mormonism, one that recognizes objective facts and adapts to them without rancor.  And he is a faithful Latter-day Saint.  Like Nibley's best work, his work makes Mormonism genuinely interesting, no matter who is reading it.)  

Contemporary LDS apologists increasingly fall into two camps, one characterized by denial or deconstruction of facts deemed "anti-Mormon" (e.g. the Maxwell Institute), and the other characterized by accommodation of these same facts (e.g. Richard Bushman, Todd Compton, Terryl Givens, and Grant Palmer).  As the facts have multiplied and become more generally known (among Mormons and non-Mormons), the first camp has become increasingly shrill and belligerent (toward "anti-Mormons" outside the fold of the LDS church and Mormons who disagree with them from within that fold), while the second has quietly shown that whatever good there is in Mormonism exists there regardless of historical facts (which are not always what we would wish them to be, to the chagrin of people like Boyd K. Packer).  While there are problems with both approaches, the second is ultimately preferable, I think.  It allows others to have truth, giving credence to non-Mormons and "heretical" Mormons by acknowledging that their reality is not utterly unfounded.  This makes Mormonism interesting and accessible to people who would otherwise have no use for it.  More importantly, it allows Mormons to admit serious flaws, in themselves and in their religious institutions.  It provides a place for continuing revelation, an obvious deficit that Mormons can work to alleviate.  Every culture needs a place to grow, a deficit to fill, a weakness from which to learn.  And, importantly, it needs an outlet for growth that is not entirely reactive, negative, or polemical.

Historically, the Maxwell Institute has recognized the importance of balancing religious apologetics (defending the faith from anti-Mormons and heretics) with scholarship (the free pursuit of interesting truth).  Unfortunately, its idea of historical scholarship is to write books that treat the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham as genuine ancient texts.  Without denying that these books (and other pieces of Mormon culture) share some interesting features with really ancient artifacts, it is nevertheless drastically overstating the case to make them primary sources on a par with, e.g., the Pyramid Texts, the Iliad, or Herodotus.  To take one example I have heard invoked several times (by Dan Peterson among others): King Benjamin's gathering of the people in the opening chapters of Mosiah is like the ancient Israelite festival Sukkot in the same way that the camp-meetings of the Second Great Awakening are like that ancient festival.  The Maxwell Institute's inability to see truths like this (truths glaringly obvious outside the Institute) places its kind of thinking firmly outside the interest of many people (including even quite a few Mormons) -- the kind of people who have no problem recognizing genuine archaic folklore in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings but cannot see that work as a bona fide artifact from the "real" Middle-earth, as though such a place ever existed outside the realm of fantasy.  (Where did Tolkien acquire his remarkable knowledge of so many records of different nations?  Maybe he was digging in his garden one fine day and turned up a palantir?  If the outside world did scholarship the way the Maxwell Institute does, they would have to take this possibility very seriously.  It might be something about which there is no definite conclusion possible, unless one receives a personal witness from Legolas -- a personal witness that eludes the experience of most people, including most scholars.)  Alas, the creative expression of the Maxwell Institute strikes most educated people (not just scholars) as transparent fantasy: I am going to say that this is increasingly true even when the educated people in question happen to be Mormons.

All these factors create the conditions for a perfect storm -- a whirlwind of competing aims and opinions that inevitably smashes naive ideas about order and providence.  The Maxwell Institute sees Mormonism one way.  The Brethren sitting on the BYU Board of Trustees see it another way.  And the Maxwell Institute's audiences (Mormon and non-Mormon) have a different spectrum of expectations.  There is no way to validate everyone.  There is no position that someone somewhere does not disagree with, with good reason.  How do Mormons handle this kind of chaos?  Historically, we pretend that the Brethren are unified (fiction), and that they are never wrong (more fiction), and that we should always defer to them without question (a dangerous game, as I know from personal experience).  And, as of now, that seems to be what is happening: we are living a repeat of the scenario that always plays out when the Brethren are never wrong.  Instead of manning up and admitting that the truculent apologetic approach that they endorsed has proven ill-founded (for reasons I have glanced at here), the Brethren are quietly firing their attack dog, Dan Peterson.  While I cannot pretend I am not interested to see whether the "new" Maxwell Institute will be better than the old (perhaps less insular, angry, and anti-intellectual?), I am saddened that the Brethren have still not learned how to take responsibility for themselves.  Instead of doing everything via committees behind closed doors and pretending to the public that nothing is happening ("business as usual"), I wish they would come out and tell us what they are doing, and why.  I wish they would wash their own dirty laundry once in a while instead of passing the buck to people like John D. Lee and Dan Peterson -- convenient "human capital" that can be relegated to the waste bin after it ceases to be useful.  Hopefully, Peterson will continue to be more fortunate than Lee.  (Rough as the business of apologetics is, being a hitman with a mandate to slaughter a wagon train of people is definitely worse.)  If Peterson keeps his professorship at BYU, he will have more time to devote to his non-apologetic scholarly interests.  Since these are important -- and very interesting in a way that the Maxwell Institute was never going to be as long as it remained on the course from which it is currently being diverted -- he might still do very well for himself and for the communities to which he belongs.  For all that I find his apologetic position entirely untenable, I appreciate his good intentions and I wish him well in future.

Needy America

"We don't need an outsourcing pioneer in the Oval Office. We need a President who will fight for American jobs and fight for American manufacturing."  Barack Obama (22 June 2012).

In practical terms, this pretty rhetoric boils down to something like the following.

We don't need a robust economy. We need a fragile protectionist racket.

We don't need goods and services. We need more busywork: more people manning institutions "too big to fail" (too big to fail without dragging us all down, especially now that the government has decided to "save" them with the taxpayers' money:  "Ladies and gentlemen, the Titanic has struck an iceberg, but don't worry, the crew will chain you to the mast shortly and everything will be fine.  Meanwhile, please enjoy the game of musical chairs that we have arranged to while away the time this election year.").

We don't need a viable currency. We need everyone to earn lots of worthless money. (Thanks, Lords Greenspan and Bernanke!)

We don't need individual citizens to think seriously about what is going on in the world (let alone turn such thoughts into actions). We the peons of the United States of America should leave the thinking to enlightened philosopher-kings (like Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney, who are both oligarchs fighting to maintain the ascendancy of the established, cancerous bureaucracy that is our federal government).

Why do so many of us take this kind of piffle seriously? 

Friday, June 22, 2012

No One Ever Has It All

Anne-Marie Slaughter.  "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."  Atlantic (July/August 2012).

From my perspective (which others are free to disagree with), the issues Slaughter raises are more human than feminist. I would not want the kind of job Slaughter takes (a distant one requiring all-day commitments, no leisure at all). People who take those jobs, men or women, give up things (things I am not willing to give up).

What I see coming out of this is an honest reassessment of what it takes to work at high levels of an overgrown bureaucracy. The pressure may simply be more than humanity can bear. Maybe the lesson we learn from this is that no one can have it all, that more government is not always going to be better, that we need to find better ways of living (requiring less centralization, less bureaucracy, less self-sacrificing ascetics willing and able to give themselves wholly and utterly to the Machine).

In antiquity, people knew that bureaucrats didn't have lives: they were often monks, eunuchs, cripples, etc. Somewhere along the American journey, we picked up this idea that we can do anything if we just engineer things right. Maybe this is true. Or maybe not.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mormon Antichrist 2.0

S. Michael Wilcox.  Walking on Water.  Deseret, 2011.  ASIN: B004ZLFOZ6.

Recently, a friend shared with me a story from this book, a story that I have heard elsewhere before.  In the words of my friend:
[Wilcox] shares an experience that one of his daughters had with a college professor who was always challenging his students' faith in God.  Brother Wilcox told his daughter to challenge the professor back by using Alma's statement to Korihor (Alma 30:40):  "And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only."  Well, one day the professor said, "We don't know that there are moral absolutes.  There is no proof that there are moral, ethical absolutes.  Society makes the rules and they can change what is right and what is wrong."  Brother Wilcox asked his daughter if she was able to say anything to counter that statement.  She was!  She told him that she had raised her hand and asked, "What evidence do you have that there are no moral absolutes? You don't have any evidence. It's just your word." Brother Wilcox told her how proud he was of her and asked what happened then.  She said, "It was wonderful.  The kids all got into it and they kept saying, 'Yeah, what evidence do your have?  And finally he had to admit that there was no evidence for his point either."
This story bugs me, just like the stories of Antichrists in the Book of Mormon (including the one about Korihor that it alludes to) have always bugged me.  In the Book of Mormon, the Antichrists (Sherem, Nehor, Zeezrom, Korihor) are invariably presented as dolts.  Nehor is a transparent thug (who flies off the handle and kills Gideon when the latter ventures to disagree with him in public debate).  Zeezrom is introduced as this cunning lawyer, an expert debater out to trap the righteous missionaries Alma and Amulek in their words, and then his only debating tactic worth noticing is to ask Amulek how much money he will take to deny the existence of God.  Even as a kid, I found this really lame: "Well, Zeezrom, I know I just put my reputation on the line in front of the whole community watching us here, but when you mention money I get so weak in the knees: I'd be happy to out myself as a liar for the big wad of cash that you're not going to give me anyway (since you are only bringing it up to discredit me)."  Finally, the only two Antichrists with anything worth saying, Sherem and Korihor, are dismissed without argument, really: God intervenes and kills them (striking Korihor dumb first) without effectively refuting anything that they say.  The closest thing to a really useful discussion of atheism that readers of the Book of Mormon get is the debate between Alma and Korihor, which follows the script of the discussion between Wilcox's daughter and her professor.  Forgive me for pointing this out, but either that professor was an idiot or God intervened and shut him up prematurely (like Korihor).  Since God has not yet bothered to shut me up, I am going to come to the rescue of the atheists, who are not all stupid (or thugs, or even Antichrist, at least not any more than they are anti-Thor).

In the Book of Mormon, Korihor comes along offering a familiar atheist message: God is just an old tradition that priests invoke to gull people out of their time and talents.  Alma offers a standard defense to this schtick: "Thou knowest we do not glut ourselves upon the labors of this people" (Alma 30:32) -- at least not compared to those other guys (the whore of all the earth); our pet projects are modest and beneficial, so "Let's go shopping at City Creek!"  Blah, blah.  Let's skip to the important part, Alma's only argument (apart from reading Korihor's mind and then invoking the power of God to strike him dumb):
And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.  But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? (Alma 30:40-41)
Voila!  The seminary teacher working with S. Michael Wilcox's daughter must be proud: she knows her Book of Mormon, and can put "rational" atheists like Korihor in their place.  Unfortunately, this argument is actually quite lame, particularly when it is offered the way Alma (and the young Wilcox) offer it, i.e. as an end to discussion instead of a beginning.  From my own personal experience with atheists (as an LDS missionary and one of those eternal college students), I am going to tell you what really happens when you uncork Alma's argument in live debate.  In my experience, real atheists don't role over and take it the way Korihor does, and believers like Alma are not typically able to invoke the magic power of God to make their rivals shut up (unless they happen to be living in an area where rabid fanaticism predominates).

Alma and the younger Wilcox do have a point: in debate, the only things actively shared are words -- mine against yours.  But not all words are created equal.  Some map reality better than others.  Some correspond to things in the real world.  Some are just hot air.  How does one tell the difference?  Well, you have to put them to some kind of test (as Alma himself admits somewhere else).  You have to live with them a bit.  If you live with your eyes open you will notice several things that cast serious doubts on the efficacy of the argument that Alma and Wilcox use to dismiss atheists like Korihor.

(1) People actually do have different ideas about God, the world over.  The fact that people have different ideas about what is important should be totally obvious today.  Some people think that drawing a picture of the prophet Muhammad (or representing his figure in any kind of art) is an offense worthy of death.  Others condemn these pious followers of the prophet as murderous terrorists.  Some people think that monogamy is divine.  Others (including a number of early Mormon leaders) think that the supreme being prefers polygamy.  God himself is no better: in every religious tradition whose history I have examined closely, he contradicts himself, telling people to be nice and commanding them to slaughter one another ruthlessly.  (I have already blogged about the schizophrenic God of history here.)  What are we supposed to make of God's inscrutability?  How can everyone be right, when we all contradict one another (and ourselves)?  Mormons should be familiar with this theme, since it is prominent in the canonical version of the First Vision.  We should know that rational people really do wonder how the heck it makes sense for God to tell people all over the world to care passionately about things that other people find completely uncompelling (like whether Muhammad gets a posthumous portrait done).  Which leads us to another problem.

(2) God doesn't strike the right people dumb.  In the Book of Mormon story, Korihor is never refuted.  Alma accuses him of secretly believing and then strikes him dumb when the poor fool wants a sign that God exists.  Here I think Korihor gets a bad rap.  After all, if we think back to the First Vision, Joseph Smith went into the Sacred Grove to get a sign.  That was the whole point.  "Hey, God!  People have no clue what you value.  All your preachers contradict one another.  I would like some personal direction, yo!"  Why didn't young Joseph get stricken dumb?  Maybe for the same reason so many of my Spanish "investigators" couldn't get a personal witness that God wanted them to drop everything and become Latter-day Saints?  Maybe for the same reason I don't get an urgent desire to become a Scientologist every time I see Tom Cruise?  Is it conceivable that people believe different things about the nature of ultimate reality, and that whatever divinity there is doesn't see fit to change that?  I think it is.  As I look at history, it seems to me that God is very hands-off.  He lets people do their own thing.  He lets them attribute anything to him, no matter what it is.  Across the world, people build churches to him.  They give food to the hungry in his name.  And in his name, they blow up churches, take food from the hungry, and beat up homosexuals.  They call God all kinds of names, say all sorts of contradictory things about his nature, and he is perfectly cool with it.  He lets the Holy Inquisition do its thing with the same nonchalance that he shows toward the Salvation Army: the sun riseth upon the just and the unjust.  The prosperity gospel found in Deuteronomy (and the Book of Mormon) is a steaming pile of crap (as Christians should know: Jesus was the best God had, and look what happened to him; no tradition that I am aware of has him "prospering in the land").

(3) No matter what anyone says, we don't know squat about God.  The upshot of points (1) and (2) above is that we don't really know (a) if God exists or (b) what his nature is (what he wants from us).  Let's say my friends tell me that there is this guy named Pete.  Pete wants me to be nice, they say, and he will make things go my way if I send money regularly to a certain PO box.  I am intrigued, so I start being nice and making payments.  Then, my friends come and tell me that Pete wants me to rob a bank.  I protest that this is not nice.  My friends come up with all kinds of arguments showing me that robbing the bank is necessary: the clincher is that Pete cannot make things go my way if I don't trust him absolutely.  I inform my friends that I am not willing to become a bank robber for a man I have never met.  They ask me if I am willing to give up all the blessings I have incurred sending money to Pete.  I ask them, "What blessings? You mean the same ones I used to get before you even told me Pete existed?"  (Being nice is a good idea, even if you don't have an imaginary overlord recommending it to you.)  And our conversation is over, unless and until Pete deigns to reveal himself and give me convincing reasons why the bank must be robbed.  My friends can strike me dumb as a sign-seeker if they want, but that just proves that they are thugs (the same way Pete would be if that were his only response to my inquiry about the bank job).  To make the analogy complete, imagine that I make some new friends who tell me that Pete's real name is Bob, and he wants me to move to LA and take up surfing.  Then, other people tell me that my friend is a woman named Chris, and I should be selling Mary Kay products door-to-door.  Everyone knows (passionately) that Pete, Bob, and Chris exist, and that they care (passionately) about banks, surfing, and Mary Kay.  But I cannot ever meet them face to face.  Until I do, our relationship is going nowhere: I cannot have a relationship with someone who cannot talk to me more clearly (and kindly, not to mention coherently) than God does.

What is really wrong with Alma's argument against Korihor, and Wilcox's argument against her professor, is that we are all using the same evidence.  We all have opinions.  All of our opinions are based in facts (i.e. they derive from our personal encounters with an objective reality "out there" in the world).  So, Korihor has "all things as a testimony" that his opinions are true, the same way Alma does (in the passage quoted above).  If Alma wants to change the game, he needs to introduce Korihor to God.  (If my friends want me to rob the bank for Pete's sake, then they need to put me in touch with the guy.)  In real life, you cannot simply introduce people to God.  Wilcox does not convince her professor by calling down an angel.  She cannot even strike her professor magically dumb (without some apparatus like the Holy Inquisition: what a marvel of divine engineering that was! was God pleased with it? why wouldn't he be, assuming he approved of the way Alma handled Korihor?).  So she is left stating the obvious: "Well, you have your opinion, and I have mine."  OK.  Where do our respective opinions come from?  She leaves the really interesting question unasked.  She doesn't talk about human psychology, the nature of myth, or even her own personal experience.  But let's assume she does.

Let's assume she is an LDS missionary like I was, and she tells her professor (who is supposed to be inquisitive, investigative, interested) the story of her personal relationship with God. 

"I was born into a family where we prayed regularly to God.  I prayed.  I read some holy books.  It felt really good.  I grew up and came to the realization that I could be a moral, ethical person." 

"Fascinating!" the professor might say.  "I have a history too.  I have experiences.  I have meditated.  I have read books that I consider holy, after a fashion.  I too have learned the value of being a moral person."

"No," the missionary says, "you cannot be really, authentically moral unless you join my church, which is the only true church."

"But I like my church," the professor objects.

"You are misguided!  Your church is really just an abomination, honestly.  I mean, you believe all kinds of incomprehensible crap about God, whom you don't even worship consistently over time -- some of you don't even think of him as a real person -- and you drink coffee.  How can you possibly be a decent human being, with these attitudes?"

"Well," the professor says, "I guess we have different ideas about what constitutes decency (but we agree on the big stuff, right?  I mean, we're sitting here talking politely: we haven't gone berserk on one another yet).  And everyone has different ideas about God.  That is for the best, I suppose."

"No way!  Everyone should know how God really is.  Everyone should be a member of my church (the only true one).  Everyone should see God the way I see him.  Everyone should avoid coffee the way I do."

"Really?  Why do you think the world would be a better place if everyone agreed with you?"

Here I will leave the conversation, since this is something I could not get over on my LDS mission.  Shortly after my arrival in Spain (where I served), I realized that I did not want everyone to believe precisely what I believed.  I did not want everyone to drop their personal religion to come join mine.  I did not want all the old Catholic churches (some of them quite beautiful) to be abandoned so that we could all gather in strip malls (where most of the LDS meetinghouses were) or other drab, modern buildings.  I did not want the Latin chants to cease.  I did not want the incense to stop burning.  I did not want people to stop making pilgrimages to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  I did not want everyone to think the same way I did about God, the universe, and everything.  I liked it when people were honest with me.  I liked it when we shared real conversations, in which both of us spoke our truth and nobody felt pressured to deny the reality he was living in (whether that reality was Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, pagan, or atheist).  It seemed to me that converting the whole country to Mormonism would be a shame: think how much culture would be lost.  It would be like replacing every restaurant in New York with a McDonald's.  Why would anyone want to do that? 

I guess if all the restaurants but McDonald's were serving poisonous food it might make some sense, but they aren't.  I have encountered many people outside Mormonism as happy and "spiritual" as any Saint I ever met.  The fact that they are not precisely like me does not make them "anti-me" -- we are different, but we are not enemies, and neither one of us is better than the other (even when one of us happens to be atheist).  Behind all the posturing -- the culture, the different ideas about God -- we are both human.  We are all human: it doesn't matter what religion you happen to belong to; what really matters is what kind of person you are.  This truth hit me like a ton of bricks in the mission field, and I have not been able to get rid of it since.  I don't really want to: I think it is one of the most valuable insights I have ever had.

In conclusion, I would like to refer my readers to two contemporary atheists explaining their beliefs.  One gives the answer that Wilcox's professor should have given.  (If all we have are opinions, which opinions matter most to you: those that are rational, arguable, and open-ended, or the ones that you accept untested from men who claim obscure magical powers and think that winning an argument means doing whatever it takes to shut the other guy up?  Most professors will pick Socratic logos over tyrannical ethos every time, whether they are atheist or not, and rightly so.  That is what civilized people do, even in antiquity.)  The other reminds us, in a very personal way, that atheists are people just like everybody else: they have personal testimonies, too.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Humor and Integrity

I recently listened to the first half of this interview again, and I was impressed (moved).  Brian Dalton has some good things to say, things that have crossed my mind several times as well (more and more over the past few years).

Monday, June 18, 2012

Credo quia absurdum est

"I believe it because it is absurd."  I read the famous aphorism (falsely?) attributed to Tertullian somewhere as an undergraduate, and it stuck with me.  (Notice that what I am about to say follows equally well from the authentic quotation in De carne Christi 5.4: credibile prorsus est, quia ineptum est, i.e. "it is believable precisely because it is absurd" -- the point is that religion appears nonsensical.)  As an LDS missionary in northern Spain, I even cited the aphorism on occasion when explaining myself to nonmembers (and potential converts, rare as that species was).  My reasoning, which I still find apt today, was more or less as follows.

You don't belong to a church because its doctrine makes perfect sense. (No doctrine does.) You don't belong to a church because it never makes a mistake. (They all do.) You belong to a church because God put you there (in that family, in that community, in the nexus of events that got you through the door and into the baptismal font, or some other initiatory ritual).

Someone outside your group looks at what you do and says, "Dude, that is absurd." If you are honest, and empathetic, you see his point and acknowledge it: "Yes, that absurdity you see, that is real, and that is precisely what keeps me coming back. I am a part of this community, which means that I embrace the absurdity." A case in point.  What other people find obnoxious in me (as a person and a potential lifelong companion), my wife finds "cute" (or so she says -- that doesn't mean that she never pushes back or that she is an utterly passive doormat, the way some people seem to think it should: it's just the way things are!).

I certainly don't think we should ignore data that overthrow our ideas (no matter how we may feel about said ideas). As a Mormon missionary, I did not invite people to ignore data. I was all about trying to get them to look at it; for me, that was Mormonism (further light and knowledge, continuing revelation, an unfolding of exciting new ideas with no end in sight). Then, at some point, I realized that the institutional church was not behind me. Slowly, I became aware that this was not all: the church was actually opposed to me, was fighting against the gospel (as I understood it) -- actively denying the Holy Ghost (to use its own language) -- and I was pretty devastated. Today, I am mostly recovered. I think of myself as an atheist, or a Buddhist, or an uncorrelated Mormon, depending on the weather and the social circle I am moving in. I have not found absolute truth. I do not have "the" answer, but I have found much better questions, and my faith journey continues -- largely without the LDS church, since it appears to have no use for what I see as the purpose of life (asking tough questions, and respecting the fact that we don't all have to meet them with the same answers, that the game of life has more than one solution).

People come to religion, in my view, pretty much the same way that they come to music or cuisine. You listen, you taste, and something in the experience grabs you. You have to hear more, to get that flavor again. You have to play. You have to dance. You have to try that recipe again and again, and get it right yourself. You don't come to jazz or Italian because they are rationally superior to folk or Mexican. You might try to convince yourself that you do, after the fact, when somebody presses you for reasons why you suddenly went cuckoo (from their perspective) -- but such rationalization is specious (as rationalization often is when it is invoked to explain complex historical decisions involving more variables than we can separate easily). You come to jazz, and you don't know why: you just have to. Tertullian's statement captures that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Honest Economy

I have been reading a lot of Lewis Mumford lately (of which more anon), and as a result I have some more thoughts about solving the problems of civilization (income inequality, class warfare, starvation, imbalanced use of resources -- a whole constellation of ills which can be neatly characterized as "boom and bust," meaning gluttony for some and famine for others).  Here are my thoughts (provisional thoughts, not definite conclusions):

(1) It is impossible to create a system in which there is no boom and bust.  Nature goes by fits and starts.  Animals live (and die) with feast and famine.  Systems fluctuate.  Stuff changes.  Organisms adapt (or die, and dying is nothing to be paralytically afraid of: when it happens, it happens).  Ever since the agricultural revolution, humanity en masse has been attempting to build a collective "too big to fail."  We have constructed tribes, cities, city-states, federations, nations, states, and the modern nation-state -- increasingly bigger collectives offering a bigger "social buffer" between the individual organism and catastrophic failure (death).  In every instance, nature has flouted us: our collectives could absorb some (relatively minor) shocks better by growing larger, but when they fell, they fell harder.  My toddlers are little guys.  They fall all the time, and they get hurt.  Compared with them, I am large.  I fall less.  But when I really do fall, I get hurt much worse than they do (just as an elephant hurts worse than I when it falls).  The fact of nature is that we are all going to fall (just as we are all going to die): the question is not how to avoid this eventuality, but how to optimize it (make falling -- and death -- as pleasant as possible).  It is silly to design systems "too big to fail" when history shows us (repeatedly) that every system fails.  Some systems do fail better than others, but it can be hard to see that fact when you are not looking for it (as many of us are not, because we are too busy looking for the impossible system that never fails).

(2) When it comes to dealing with failure (death) and success (not dying), people are (historically, understandably) irrational.  If the negative driving humanity to civilization is fear of failure (death), the positive is love for life (not dying).  While death (failure) is concrete, definite, and somewhat final, life (success) is not so easy to pin down.  To put it another way, we all know more or less what too much failure looks like, but we don't have a clue what too much success would be.  Another meal means more life.  Does that mean we should never stop eating, given the chance?  Historically, having things stockpiled can tide us over natural periods of famine: does this mean that bigger stockpiles are always better?  A little sex keeps society happy and alive (staving off failure): does that mean we should do it all the time?  These are serious questions that most people never ask -- they are too busy trying not to fail to wonder whether there might be such a thing as too much success (i.e. a point at which the bow of Heraclitus -- see frr. B48 and B51 DK -- converts success into failure).  As a species, humanity has consistently pursued success as something good by definition (as though it were concrete, known, and pure, such that it never turns into failure and could never, of itself, produce anything bad).  And we keep coming up against this brick wall (which we don't see, because fear of death is more powerful than any nagging doubts we might have about our love of life, which after all is the major obstacle keeping many of us from death, as we think).

(3) Irrational approaches to success cause problems.  We stockpile way too much stuff, then fight over our piles (and decimate them, sometimes utterly destroying them).  We value consumption for its own sake, and actively produce items whose "survival value" is nil (e.g. most plastic toys, sneakers with lights in them, luxury cars, most clothing items).  We try to produce all the time, eat all the time, have sex all the time, etc.  We are never satisfied (as a species): no matter how much we may have eaten at nature's table, we always want more (collectively).  This is an understandable reaction, given our aversion to famine (failure, death), but that does not make it good (for us or the world).  Perhaps the worst aspect of the whole process is that we are innately competitive and possessive, meaning that we naturally compete to see who can amass and keep the biggest pile of junk (as though this were the apex of success).  Historically, this means that we give war a very high value.  Today, we already know how to make nuclear bombs, but our collective knowledge of agriculture (particularly sustainable agriculture) remains pitiful (and in many cases has shrunk, meaning that as a civilization we know less about safe, sustainable cultivation than our forefathers).

(4) Solutions to the problems of civilization have to be organic.  While there is nothing inevitable about the way we live today -- it could change tomorrow -- change is not as simple as electing the right politician or voting for the right referendum.  The engines that drive the modern nation-state (as an institution) are engines of waste (overproduction, overconsumption) and war (which is the one thing the nation-state does well all over the world).  Looking at the historical events that gave us the nation-state, it appears to me that we are unlikely to force it to change by means of sweeping legislative reform (vel sim).  Laws recognize sea changes in human morality: they do not cause them.  (Lawmakers are emphatically not the teachers of mankind, but poets, novelists, musicians, and other creators of culture -- including scientists -- can be.)  Some people will disagree with me on this point, and will want to pursue legislative reform.  That is fine.  I do not oppose them.  But I do not believe in their work, either.  Or at the very least, I don't see that I have anything useful to contribute to it.  What we need is a not another constitution, another parliament, another nation-state -- but a new way of life.  We need a way of life that lets us cultivate success without courting disastrous failure.  We need a way of life that emphasizes not "being to big to fail" (overproduction, overconsumption, war) but "being just big enough to survive inevitable failures" (intelligent production, consumption, and competition).  We need new definitions of success, and we need to make those definitions so present in the public consciousness that people naturally get behind them (at which point, if we ever reach it, legislators will take note and change their books).

For me, the fourth point above is the most exciting.  I think we already have many better definitions of success available throughout the world than appear reflected in the policies of most nation-states.  I think many people are already "on the right side" and are working for what will be a better world (if the rest of us don't cut them short by blowing them up, and if nature decides to renew our lease on life).  I think there are many good communities rising up that value intelligent approaches to success, failure, and resource management.  I don't want to stifle those communities.  I don't want to put any kind of damper on their approaches to the problem(s) I have outlined.  I think a crucial part of outgrowing the irrational part of our human reaction to failure (death) will be learning to let go of the idea that there must be a single, unitary line in the sand to which all people everywhere must hew to make a better world.  The ideal world contains many people, many ideas, many different kinds of communities, and many different solutions to the problems posed by life.  It does not demand universal adherence to an imbalanced "good" that all must worship.  It knows all kinds of goods, and it sees the reality that any good will go bad under certain circumstances.  It frees people to recognize and adapt to their own unique situation in the dance of life that holds us all together.  So, follow the beat of your own drummer -- just be sure to listen to him very, very carefully.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Brief Rant about America

Someone did a little post comparing the Mediterranean lifestyle (specifically among Italians) with the American.  I responded with something that I would like to keep (and so have reproduced below).  There is no such thing as a perfect lifestyle.  The Italian and the American both come with problems (and benefits).  In my own life, I would like to blend the best of both worlds.  I am still working out what precisely that means (in practical terms).

The one thing that Italy has that America lacks is a culture that is not entirely dominated by the “machine” (the technological complex that demands hours of work on a treadmill every day to keep crappy consumerism alive so that our survival becomes dependent on businessmen making money). In Italy, people aim to live like human beings: they don’t work like maniacs; they don’t eat like maniacs; they go bankrupt and don’t care. When the American dream (of a career selling crap to people who don’t need it) becomes an impossible nightmare for them, they retreat to the fields and become shepherds — instead of camping out on Wall Street and demanding handouts from their fatcat overlords.

In America, we are still living with the kind of idiotic mindset that makes work a virtue for its own sake. We work really hard at tasks, so hard that we cannot be bothered to stop when feedback indicates that we are digging ourselves into an impossible hole (creating hell instead of heaven). We value effort over achievement, profit over sustainability, size over function, specialization and concentration over tinkering and liberal understanding. We go to school to become cogs in “the machine” — to turn our brains off of human concerns so that we can dedicate them wholly to minute tasks that make money for businessmen (for the most part: some of us do dodge the bullet! but we see those who don’t in our classrooms, our churches, our workplaces, our gyms, our hospitals, and so on). We work to “do a job” that we frequently couldn’t care less about, probably because it is usually as boring as heck (with its primary contribution to humanity being the perpetuation of busywork, which we worship with religious fervor).

To summarize humorously (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek): Americans are diligent Protestants, believing loudly in grace while they work themselves into an early grave. Italians are typical Catholics, following old human traditions (even when they think they are mostly hogwash) over newfangled faith, and avoiding work wherever possible (i.e. whenever it is unnecessary).   

Monday, June 4, 2012

On Cultivating Moral Excellence

A friend sent me an article defending "traditional marriage," inspiring me to give voice to some thoughts of my own about cultivating moral excellence.
What these defenses always leave out are the negative consequences of the traditions they defend.  Before contraception, and even after it (in some places), one product of the traditional marriage was the unwanted infant (since taboos have never stopped people from having sex, nor have they given women any unique control over their reproductive capacity).  As I see it, what children need in order to survive is adult attention, from people who actually care about them.  In traditional societies, this attention sometimes comes from a group much larger than the nuclear family (which doesn't exist in its current form until inheritance laws bring it into being -- disinheriting bastards to benefit their brothers -- and factory culture takes it up as a useful tool for exploiting poor people, who need to exist to run the machines but cannot be too independent, lest they leave the factory or take it over themselves; the factory owners push nuclear families because they provide workers sufficiently hardy to survive and reproduce, and sufficiently fragile that they can be controlled: they are not autonomous units the way non-Western families often are). 

The Mosuo (in northern China) managed (and continue to manage) to raise perfectly healthy, happy children without anything like traditional marriage (in the Western sense): they had their own traditions, which involved sexual "promiscuity" (from a Western perspective) and a family in which children were raised by aunts and uncles.

Someone has to look after the children.  No one intelligent is denying that (or thinking that we can pass the buck to robots or the nanny state).  But it is not really true that every child in the world would be best off in a heterosexual household defined by traditional Western gender roles.  The traditional Western family is still producing a lot of unwanted babies (much less since the arrival of contraception, but they are still out there, mostly in places that are late in coming to the Western model of civilization, a model that isn't perfect by any means).  Why can't homosexual couples adopt these kids?  Why shouldn't they?  I see no reason.  (If there are reasons, they are the same reasons that would disqualify a heterosexual couple: indigent and/or abusive people should not raise kids, no matter what their sexual orientation, which is actually irrelevant.)

The backbone of moral traditions worth keeping is something more than simply sex ("it's dangerous!") or duration ("we've been doing it this way forever!").  Really useful moral values encourage the creation and duration of solid human relationships.  There is no perfect, Platonic formula for the perfect human relationship (e.g. marriage) -- just as there is no perfect, Platonic formula for the perfect human diet (or the perfect human religion).  Arguments that proceed as though there is such a formula lose me from the get-go, since they invariably come from ignorance (either the defender is unaware of complexities and historical issues that she ignores, or she is assuming that her audience is ignorant and is playing them for fools: in either case, I remain unpersuaded).  I am open to the idea that we need to find ways to get children greater access to meaningful adult attention.  I am not at all convinced that fighting gay marriage is useful in that regard; in fact, I suspect it is counter-productive (hurting children more than helping, not least because it is wasting time and resources that might otherwise go to them instead of to businessmen masquerading as mouthpieces for God).  I am all about increasing human compassion and sharing it more.  I just don't see defenses of traditional marriage doing that.  Attacking someone else's family because it doesn't look like mine doesn't make either family any better, and it certainly doesn't do anything material for kids without families.  It seems like mental masturbation, to me, reminding me of the quote from Thomas Merton:
"They [in this case, defenders of the traditional family] are great promoters of useless work.  They love to organize meetings and banquets and conferences and lectures.  They print circulars, write letters, talk for hours on the telephone in order that they may gather a hundred people together in a large room where they will all fill the air with smoke and make a great deal of noise and roar at one another and clap their hands and stagger home at last patting one another on the back with the assurance that they have all done great things to spread the Kingdom of God" (from New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 83).
This is not to deny that there is any place for such activity (even masturbation has its rightful place in human life), but it hardly belongs at the center of human consciousness.  If it becomes the focus of our efforts, then we have seriously lost our way (in the same way that the compulsive masturbator who never pursues a human relationship becomes detached from the real purpose of sex, which is to draw people together into vibrant, vital relationships that enable and enrich life).  I am all about cultivating those vibrant, vital relationships.  From what I see, they do not require strict adherence to Western gender roles (though some people find those roles very fulfilling: that is perfectly fine!).  That doesn't mean that they exist in total anarchy: issues of integrity, honesty, and (yes) jealousy will always be important in human relationships.  In my mind, these are the things that need work: real defenders of the family cultivate integrity, honesty, and non-possessiveness (the opposite of jealousy).  They care for their relationships the way a farmer looks after his plants, tending them carefully every day: they don't have time to spray pesticides all over their neighbors' crops, in a mistaken attempt to help him out; they are too busy looking after their own.  

When people come to me all riled up about defending marriage, it seems (to me) to show an insecurity on their part -- a fear that their own relationships are inadequate, an idea that they might abandon them suddenly if society didn't threaten them with terrible punishments should they attempt to do so.  They come to me from a position that treats all people as dangerous animals to be corralled and broken (like wild horses).  There is some truth to this position, but (to continue the analogy) the best horse-tamers are those who don't break their animals.  They simply befriend them and show them new ways of being.  Kindness is a better teacher than harsh discipline, here -- I think -- especially when the discipline has no other justification than atavistic fear rooted in ignorance.  (My wife is always pointing this out to me with the kids, when I come down too harshly on them.  If I terrify them every time they do anything I don't like, they don't really learn anything except an atavistic fear of their father, and possibly of certain things whose significance totally escapes them.  I can be firm with them, but that firmness has to be kind, and it really ought to be rational, too.  Otherwise, it hinders their moral development more than it helps -- turning them into robots who attempt to do my will unthinking instead of wise people who see reality and react to it intelligently on their own.) From my perspective, I care about the family too deeply to defend it the way many social conservatives do these days.  This does not make me a stereotypical social liberal, in my view.  

Side note on my strange position between conservatism and liberalism.  It is really funny.  Everyone firmly on one side sees all these nefarious conspiracies on the other: depending on which set of friends I talk with on any given day, I am alternately a card-carrying member of the KKK or the Weathermen -- a reactionary fascist who loves big business or a fire-breathing communist determined to make sure every kindergartner in America knows how to have anal sex.  What nonsense!  There are not really vast grassroots conspiracies in American politics, in my experience: just people at the top exploiting people at the bottom in tried and true ways to maintain their position, throwing the occasional bone to an ideological cause they believe in "because that's the right thing to do" -- as it is, sometimes.  We all muddle through as best we can in typical human fashion, and it isn't all bad or good.  It is what it is.  Making the best of it seems to mean letting go of the illusion that it is all perfectly manageable, that there exists any absolute good that can be pursued without any bad consequences.  Aurea mediocritas is the watchword that makes sense: we live and die well not by extremes, but by "the golden mean" -- an imperfect balance between "good" and "evil" that keeps our relationships intact without making them easy.  As I need a little arsenic to remain alive, so I need a little fascism and communism now and then, but never too much of either.

I care about people.  I seek to understand them.  I want to help them better themselves where I can.  I want to give them room to grow into what it is that they find elevating and inspiring.  I do not seek to impose my own vision of beauty upon them, not because I do not have one or because beauty does not matter to me, but because my kind of beauty is one whose very existence depends on creative freedom.  My culture thrives best outside the hot-house, outside the narrowly controlled environment where every external factor appears regulated and controlled.  I do not need to be defended from the strangeness of my neighbors: I accept that strangeness, as I hope (and ask) that they accept mine.  I look after the beams in my own eye, and let others see to their own motes: if they ask me for help, I will give them whatever I can, and they can use it or not as they see fit, but I cannot presume to legislate for them (any more than I would presume to write music for Bach or compose poetry for Homer: a man's work is sacred to him, in my view, even when it is not very good). The best moral censor in the public arena is the one who contributes the most good, not the one who wages the loudest campaigns against whatever he happens to regard as bad.  Quietly exemplifying the principles one believes in trumps grandstanding in every case, regardless of what those principles happen to be.  (How you talk is much less revealing than how you live, and you live better when you don't spend your whole life thinking about how you talk, as though talking were the most useful aspect of living.  Maybe I should rethink all the energy I spend writing things like this blog, eh?)