Friday, June 28, 2013

Raising the Children

Jared Diamond.  The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?  New York: Viking, 2012.  ISBN: 9780670024810.

There are many interesting ideas in this book, but this one struck me as something particularly worth mulling over (from pages 207-208):
States do have military and technological advantages, and advantages of vastly larger populations, over hunter-gatherers.  Throughout recent millennia, those advantages have enabled states to conquer hunter-gatherers, so that the modern world map is now divided completely among states, and few hunter-gatherer groups have survived.  But even though states are much more powerful than hunter-gatherer bands, that doesn't necessarily imply that states have better ways of raising their children.  Some child-rearing practices of hunter-gatherer bands may be ones that we could consider emulating ... I don't recommend that we return to the hunter-gatherer practices of selective infanticide, high risk of death in childbirth, and letting infants play with knives and get burned by fires.  Some other features of hunter-gatherer childhoods, like the permissiveness of child sex play, feel uncomfortable to many of us, even though it may be hard to demonstrate that they really are harmful to children.  Still other practices are now adopted by some citizens of state societies, but make others uncomfortable--such as having infants sleep in the same bedroom or the same bed as parents, nursing children until age three or four, and avoiding physical punishment of children.

But some other hunter-gatherer child-rearing practices may fit readily into modern state societies.  It's perfectly feasible for us to transport our infants vertically upright and facing forward, rather than horizontally in a pram or vertically upright but facing backwards in a pack.  We could respond quickly and consistently to an infant's crying, practise much more extensive allo-parenting, and have far more physical contact between infants and care-givers.  We could encourage self-invented play of children, rather than discourage it by consistently providing complicated so-called educational toys.  We could arrange for multi-age child playgroups, rather than playgroups consisting of a uniform age cohort.  We could maximize a child's freedom to explore, insofar as it is safe to do so.

I find myself thinking a lot about the New Guinea people with whom I have been working for the last 49 years, and about the comments of Westerners who have lived for years in hunter-gatherer societies and watched children grow up there.  A recurring theme is that the other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children.  We see that people in small-scale societies spend far more time talking to each other than we do, and they spend no time at all on passive entertainment supplied by outsiders, such as television, video games, and books.  We are struck by the precocious development of social skills in their children.  These are qualities that most of us admire, and would like to see in our own children [or even ourselves, right?], but we discourage development of those qualities by ranking and grading our children and constantly telling them what to do.  The adolescent identity-crises that plague American teen-agers aren't an issue for hunter-gatherer children.  The Westerners who have lived with hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies speculate that those admirable qualities develop because of the way in which their children are brought up: namely, with constant security and stimulation, as a result of a long nursing period, sleeping near parents for several years, far more social models available to children through allo-parenting [voila the truly traditional family, which is not about sex or gender or any of that crap, at all], far more social stimulation through constant physical contact and proximity of caretakers, instant caretaker responses to a child's crying [easier with allo-parenting, i.e. more than two adults per child], and the minimal amount of physical punishment.
The chapter contains many more insights, but these paragraphs represent a pretty good summary.  What strikes me is that my own upbringing resembles a more "hunter-gatherer" one in certain ways.  My parents took me out of school after second grade, so the majority of my social contact occurred in mixed groups (containing adults and children of different ages, with relatively little of my time spent relating exclusively to age-mates).  I always had friends who were significantly older (and eventually younger) than I was, doing things I did not (and/or could not) do, and I did not really experience a "typical" adolescent identity crisis (though I did have one, in graduate school, which is where I finally awoke to the reality of the adult world in modern Western society as it exists outside the rhetoric people use to describe it).  As a result of my own experience, I don't have a finger on the pulse of society: I have never known or cared what "the American people" wants or likes, since in my experience "the American people" is a rhetorical fiction (three words reducing innumerable pluralities to an impossible unity).  I only relate meaningfully to the people I know, who are never going to be "the American people" (or the sinister "public servants" who minister to the needs of this chimaera).  When you come to me with plans for "the American people," I instinctively recoil--perceiving that you want to impose something on my people against their will, and that you feel this will be easier if you can invoke "the American people" as your justification (my mob is the only one that matters, so you had better roll over and do whatever I say).  I don't like the American people--paradoxically, since I embrace many tenets that are historically fundamental to the American social experiment (e.g. the idea that individual human beings have alienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, even when they may choose to exert those rights in ways that I would not, personally: until you commit clear criminal damage against another person, I don't mind how you choose to express yourself).

The environment I experienced as a child was necessarily much less rigid than the one I have encountered as an adult: my family lived on the edge of an old Southern rus rustica slowly turning into modern suburbia.  We had an enormous garden.  We spent lots of time together, working on a variety of different things (garden plants, landscaping, schoolwork, cooking, cleaning, installing solar panels, books, bees, church stuff, martial arts).  We didn't "play" much with outsiders: we went to activities where there were agendas we pursued, agendas that might include playing (e.g. at church or the dojo) but were not necessarily defined by it.  We had toys, but the best toys we had (before computers) were those we made ourselves.  While we were active in a religion that many see (with good reason) as patriarchal (in a pretty chauvinist way), we did not discriminate against women ourselves (at least not on purpose: I never thought of myself as qualitatively better than any of the females I interacted with because of my genitalia; what mattered to me was always being a good person, and I knew many women who were really good people, in every sense of the word--morally upstanding, professionally skilled, and socially adept).

Entering the adult world was disruptive and scary for me.  Unlike the hunter-gatherers Diamond writes about, I did not feel that my childhood prepared me for adult reality.  But this was not because my parents pulled me out of school: I know plenty of people whose time in school made them even more vulnerable than I feel.  It was not that I lacked something growing up, really.  I liked my childhood.  I feel like it prepared me to do many good things (e.g. how to work hard, how to get along with many different kinds of people, how to be self-motivated, how to solve problems in real life, how to be comfortable outdoors, how to embrace alternatives to modern conveniences when they become obnoxious or inconvenient).  But it did not prepare me well to fit into the world of age- and class-segregated professionals whose ranks I was supposed to join upon finishing my stint in the university (which I am at last about to do!).  After 10 years bumbling around in pursuit of terminal degrees that might land me remunerative employment (if Zeus pulls my lot from the right jar), I feel like there is a great gap in American culture--a gap between theory and practice--that leaves many people like me dangerously blind and helpless.
Hunter-gatherers grow up knowing how they will live.  They learn to hunt and gather as their ancestors did (and do).  I grow up being told that if I am "good" (at something, e.g. solving some kind of abstruse problem on a college entrance exam), then someone will give me a "job" (doing something, that could be anything).  I frequently heard advice like this: "Get an education!  And everything will work out.  God (or somebody else wise and powerful, e.g. the President) will provide."  This was disconcerting, particularly as I came closer and closer to failure in my academic efforts.  I had friends who were smart, worked hard, and failed.  Knowing them pretty well, I could not see their failure as a reflection of shortcomings I did not possess.  I saw my own human weakness, and it seemed a lot like theirs.  I learned to live with a constant sense of my own irredeemable inadequacy.  Where my childhood gave me a way of life that reinforced my security, showing me how I was competent and could provide livelihood (to myself and my family, i.e. my cooperative collective), my adulthood has offered me only alienation: its way of life is to make me subservient to masters I never know, subject to impersonal forces of supply and demand whose operation I cannot see for myself (until the pink slip arrives on my desk and it is too late).  As a child, I felt there were clear expectations of me, and that I was able to see and meet those expectations.  They made sense.  (If you don't tend the squash plants, they will be eaten by bugs, and we will have no squash for dinner.)  As an adult, I am not sure what people want.  (If you get bad reviews from teachers, colleagues, or students, your bosses might reward you or fire you, depending on circumstances too numerous and mutually contradictory for you to make heads or tails of).  I don't know that I meet expectations.  I am pretty sure that much of the time I don't.  I live in constant fear of my little job--fear that I might lose it and become a burden on my family, fear that I might keep it and become a burden on society (which might not need people like me plugging away diligently at whatever little job I happen to be doing).

As I see it, my parents had for themselves clear goals that I could see and support.  I saw and shared their goal to have squash for dinner (or solar panels to supplement the grid, or blueberry bushes to make breakfast more interesting).  My bosses in society (political leaders, religious leaders, academic supervisors) either don't have clear goals (what do the American people want? the Mormon people? academia? professors? students? bosses?) or have goals I am not comfortable with (we want people to serve us against their will with goods and services to which we feel entitled for many reasons that you will find laid out in excruciating, impossible detail in our mission statement).  I don't know what success looks like in the adult world.  Actually, I know exactly what it looks like: it looks just like failure, except that I come out of it triumphant (so far), while not all of my friends and colleagues are so fortunate.  I feel like I am a piece of meat in the adult world, a little pawn being pushed around by bigger men in a game whose stakes I am only barely able to see.  Instead of teaching me how to fend for myself, the way my family tried to do, social institutions have preferred to teach me how to serve them: pay us your tithes and taxes, whenever you can; when for some reason you cannot, remember that this is the fault of our political and religious opponents, whom you should oppose always and at all cost.

I wish I knew how to hunt, how to build, how to survive (and enjoy life) without a job--or continuous access to modern luxuries that many of us have been socialized to regard as essential (e.g. electricity, air conditioning, automotive transportation, grocery stores, hospitals, and my least favorite, "insurance").  Useful education, in my view, would teach me how to tend to my needs at minimal cost (to myself and others), making me a maximally autonomous individual.  But that is not the kind of education I have received at church or school.  Paradoxically, education in an institution does not really set people free: any freedom it offers comes at the expense of some self-sacrifice, some self-effacing contribution to the institution.  This is not an inherently poisonous or awful thing.  I don't mind giving something in exchange for something else.  But it becomes problematic when I give institutions everything I am, and all they can give me in return is empty promises like, "Hope for change!" and "God will provide!"  I didn't need to pay thousands of dollars in tithing, taxes, or tuition for that kind of knowledge, people.  I don't need to put in thousands of man-hours reading books and writing up reports that I then tear to shreds and write over, if the end-result of all my labors is a shrug: "We don't need professional humanists (or buggy-whip artisans) any more.  You should have chosen a better career, one that made you really useful."  Well, if I could see what utility means in this obscene place we call the world (or the market or even, gag, Wall Street), then maybe I might know how to serve it better.  If you could show me something to believe in or work for that weren't a pie-in-the-sky founded on transparent nonsense (or blatant theft, Wall Street), then maybe I could make something you might like (or at least avoid making myself a drag on society in pursuit of something worthless).

I am personally satisfied, at least at the moment, with the fruit of my labors as an adult.  If I am fired tomorrow, I will walk away from my position with some good experiences, and no student debt (thank all the people who founded scholarships for clueless undergrads with a taste for reading ancient Latin and Greek).  I will take whatever skills and aptitudes I have and seek a place to apply them meaningfully.  But I won't count on their translating easily into any of the narratives I heard as a student (narratives in which it was taken for granted that I would become a tenured professor, take out a mortgage on a house, have five kids, and retire to tend roses at the age of 65, providing a regular source of revenue to society in the form of tithes and taxes).  I don't think it is realistic to plot this kind of future, ignoring the increasingly obvious reality that it can always be subverted (when I fail to make tenure; when the education bubble bursts and tenure disappears entirely along with all the "free" money; when there is not time or food enough to keep another kid in my apartment; when the housing market prices us out; when Japanese beetles eat all the roses and the result of my constant worry is premature senility).  I guess what I am saying is that I wish school were more of a training ground for honest-to-goodness entrepreneurs (not just the pretenders who want to talk but cannot act with real responsibility), and less of an assembly-line reducing authentic, expansive human beings ("I contain multitudes") to narrow skill-sets designed to serve the inhuman and inhumane business-needs of corporations like GoldmanSachs, Monsanto, or the US federal government.  I don't really want a job.  I never did.  I want a life.  That is all.  It doesn't have to be easy.  It doesn't have to be expensive (in terms of capital: it will always require hard work, from me most of all, but I like that; I want to work at something I believe in, something that isn't the rat-race I see at the center of adult American life these days).  But it has to be real, and I have to be able to pursue it in ways that are authentic and maximally independent (respecting my individual autonomy: I don't mind being told what to do, but I do mind being expected to offer abject deference when my boss appears manifestly duplicitous or incompetent--as all bosses do sometimes, myself included).   

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Culture, Sweet Liquor of Life

I groan inside when I hear people talking about things like "the cultural pressure to be thin."  Consider a case involving the person whose culture I know the most about--i.e. myself.  As a subclinical anorexic (maybe more accurately described as orthorexic), I cannot think of any cultural triggers prompting my obsession with "health" (as defined by waistline).  I was about eight years old when I suddenly became very concerned that I was too fat.  I did not have people telling me that. I did not see any culture promoting thinness (my childhood occurred in the early eighties, before obesity became a thing people cared about).  I produced anorexic (orthorexic) thoughts on my own, as part of my natural development.  As I got older, I became aware that there were other people like me, including some that happen to be famous.  But I was not created by them (recruited by their anorexic agenda, which is as specious to me as the gay agenda: I don't think it really exists, at least not in any way that I find meaningful).  Now, after many years of introspection and life experience, during which I have more or less come to terms with my own illness (as an orthorexic anorexic), I learn that my mother had issues with anorexia back in the day.  As far as I know she did not actively try to pass them on to me, telling me not to eat too much or whatever, but they were there nonetheless. Our shared biology set us up to be the kind of folks who practice culture that is anorexic (and occasionally toxic, expressing itself as self-harming behavior that can terminate in premature death).

There is not one standard of beauty in society.  There never was, and there never will be.  Not everyone reads Cosmopolitan or Seventeen, and even readers of magazines like these don't uniformly "believe in" let alone actively endorse the (incoherent) standards of beauty their authors and editors put forward.  Culture has many forms, many varieties, and that is not by deliberate design: it just happens, as people like me grow up and do what we naturally tend to do (e.g. starve ourselves and/or utter cries of disgust every time we see human fat).  Naturally, as we anorexics stand apart from the feast and groan in disgust together, we notice each other, and culture is born (as we do together that which we were already doing on our own).  All culture is toxic, in my view, just as all tools are weapons.  Culture becomes dangerous to us as we manipulate it unskillfully and/or maliciously (with intent to harm).   

Going back to my opening statement, I do not think that people who rail against particularly toxic forms of culture are misguided or wrong (they are reacting to something real), but I do think that the best solutions to cultural toxicity always come from conscious individual disengagement from groupthink (of any kind). Don't expect journalists, artists, and editors to make your standards of beauty (or anything else you value). Don't consume somebody else's culture, imbibing their values uncritically.  Make your own culture, and then carefully, gingerly introduce it to people whom you trust.  Ask these trusted friends for honest feedback, so that you know how your culture is toxic and can consciously build antidotes into it--rather than broadcast it universally with no thought for any untoward consequences.

There will never be an utterly safe culture, a drug that isn't also a poison. That doesn't mean that we all must be hermits, living in perpetual isolation from ourselves and one another. But it does mean that we have to be careful. We cannot simply "express ourselves" or expose ourselves willy-nilly to others' expression with no thought for the consequences (which will always be bad at some point). Culture is like a wonderful alcoholic beverage (or some other kind of delicious and even nutritious poison): it can be enjoyed, but it must be enjoyed carefully, responsibly, under caution.

*It occurs to me that the real reason I groan whenever people talk about what is wrong with culture, is that I always fear that they want to take my culture (which has problems) and replace it with theirs (whose problems eager salespeople often ignore, for one reason or another).  I wish people were better at cultivating boundaries, that we knew how to share without imposing.  I know my culture is poisonous.  That is why I mark it with a skull and crossbones.  But yours is too.  So stop pretending like I will be fine if I just uncork the bottle on whatever you have and drink it all down at one gulp.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

If I Were Prophet

I do not envy the LDS General Authorities their position in society, at all.  But that doesn't mean that I have no interest in what they do.  As someone who grew up Mormon and still sees much to admire (and learn from) in the body of culture we point to with words like Mormonism, I cannot help having my own ideas of what the LDS church should (or perhaps better could) do to improve its positive impact on the world.

My ideas here are not a serious call to repentance, a demand that the church offer reparations for whatever ill I have seen it causing myself or other people.  This post is not the place for that, and to be honest, I see the utility of that kind of rhetorical posture as fundamentally limited.  I have probably already gotten all the rise I am going to get out of the church with my personal angst (expressed elsewhere on this blog).  I am utterly at peace with that.

This post is a free gift from me to the Mormonism I loved (and to some degree still love and will always love).  You don't demand that someone accept such a gift.  You offer it on her doorstep and let her do whatever she wants with it.  I will not be offended if this gift is wholly ignored.  But I could not rest easy until I put it out there, available to my Mormonism, even if she never has time or interest to look at it.  I love the LDS church, even if she no longer loves me (as a heretic who drinks coffee and doubts the truth of many assertions emanating from modern prophets, seers, and revelators--not because they are terrible monsters, but because my experience reveals them to be wrong).  So, with that prelude out of the way, let's get down to business.

(1) Theology and Teaching.  I put these issues front and center here because they have become the heart and soul of modern institutional Mormonism.  We meet on Sundays to learn and discuss theology.  We attend seminary for the same reason.  We go on missions to preach it to the world.  We search the scriptures to find it there.  We go to General Conference to get it from General Authorities, including our own modern Moses--the man who wears the mantle of authority that once graced the shoulders of Brigham Young.  When people want to know what Mormons are all about, we immediately start talking theology (eternal families, love, service, Christ as a redeemer making these things continually possible in a world that seems to obstruct or prevent their appearance in particular instances).

Like many believers in many historical religions, we Mormons are obsessed with theology.  This does not mean that we have coherent theology.  In fact, my experience with Mormonism and other theological religions (e.g. other forms of Protestantism, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism) leads me to conclude that Mormons are definitely more lax about theology than many (even most) other people.  For us, "official doctrine" is whatever Moses or any of his myriad representatives happens to be saying at the moment--with the caveat that future events might prove this doctrine to be fallacious (and thus no longer true or official, at least not in an absolute sense).  We don't have strict schools of thought who develop rigorous, logical systems shoe-horning the world into a series of rational categories to which reason and faith together demand absolute adherence.  There are no Mormon Thomists--no Mormon theologians in the tradition of medieval scholastic Catholicism (to cite one example).  This does not mean that individual Mormon authorities don't try to affect strict theological rhetoric (speaking Mormon with a kind of scholastic Catholic accent): the late Bruce R. McConkie is a notable example of this; the incoherence of his work speaks for itself, I think--and good Mormon that he was, he completely reversed his positions when unforeseen historical developments made them patently untenable (viz. his about-face on the Mormon doctrine of Cain's curse).  

Right now, LDS Mormonism struggles to pull theological coherence from an historical tradition founded on incoherence.  Early Mormons disagreed on theology all the time.  Joseph Smith contradicted himself repeatedly and significantly throughout his career as prophet--embracing Trinitarianism in the Book of Mormon, throwing it away in Nauvoo; rejecting polygamy in the Book of Mormon, embracing it in Nauvoo; affirming individual liberty in his campaign for president of the USA, denying it to the editors of the Expositor as mayor of Nauvoo; etc.  Brigham Young and Orson Pratt disagreed profoundly on serious doctrinal matters (e.g. what is the Holy Ghost?).  They aired their disagreements publicly, in speeches and publications, without killing Mormonism as something vital (to both of them and to the communities where they participated).  In our own time, prominent Mormons continue to disagree profoundly (though they have become less willing to let us see that disagreement, preferring to hide behind a facade of unity for reasons that I find misguided).

In our day, Mormonism is largely a matter of doctrine.  The doctrine taught is incoherent, especially for those with any experience doing rigorous theology outside Mormonism (e.g. converts with a serious background in the intellectual traditions that exist in faiths like Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, or Buddhism).  The current regime demands that we sweep this incoherence under the rug, "putting it on the shelf" for solution in the next life (or whatever).  I think this approach is fundamentally self-defeating.  I think it impoverishes Mormonism unnecessarily, stifling our ability to relate meaningfully to fellow Saints and the world outside our culture.  Instead of hiding our theological incoherence as some kind of sin to be ashamed of, we should embrace it in the tradition of our Mormon ancestors.  We should admit out loud, in public, that there is no such thing as official Mormon doctrine, that individual Mormons are responsible to learn and articulate for themselves the messages that the Spirit of God may communicate to them.  This does not have to destroy the ability of our communities to function usefully.  It will require us to change the way we do some things, however.  I have some suggestions.

In a world where there exists no fixed doctrine, order in the community has to be founded on something other than the Spirit (which can move your neighbor to inveigh against homosexuals while it moves you to do the opposite).  People have to develop their own ideas about morality, and then they have to learn how to share those ideas respectfully with other people--even when other people disagree with them profoundly (as Brigham Young disagreed with Orson Pratt).  How do we train that?  How do we make that happen in a way that enriches everyone?  I think Mormons could do this very well, in a way that would enrich all our experience (though it might cause us some discomfort sometimes, too: that is the price of dealing honestly with other people; sometimes, one feels "offended").  My suggestion is that we replace the three-hour block of Sunday meetings with a single, one-hour sacrament meeting.  After the sacrament, an ordinance that I am not interested in changing (except to put a word in to support finding roles for young women to play alongside young men--note that this does not necessarily require granting women the priesthood), the ward will hear two talks.  One talk will be offered as a positive discussion of some virtue or ordinance or aspect of the Mormon gospel, and the other will be offered--as a matter of course--as a rebuttal (a refutation or correction or caveat directed at the talk that preceded it).  Ideally, the rebuttal will be polite (avoiding insult and/or the temptation to call the first speaker out as some kind of deviant: the assumption should be that we are all friends, and that friends disagree sometimes in ways that it is useful to explore through discourse).  While this approach will definitely make many people uncomfortable at times, I think it will offer more positive results than negative.  I think it will teach Mormons to value their incoherence (a trait that is not going away any time soon) as something useful (as I think it is).  At the very least, it will definitely make sacrament meetings more interesting.

Note that I don't think anyone's personal testimony should be denied expression in this venue.  People should feel free to get up in front of the congregation and say, for example, that they believe homosexuality to be a sin.  All I am requiring is that every such assertion find a counterpoint.  This needn't require people to adopt positions they don't hold: if I personally feel that homosexuality is a sin but circumstances require me to stand up and "refute" a brother who has just articulated my view, then I will talk about how someone faithful might disagree with both of us--or I will look for ways in which I think the first speaker spoke too harshly; maybe I will end up saying that while I agree with his feeling, I think there are better ways of making peace with people who feel differently than what my brother recommended in his talk.  I offer this purely by way of example, for the record.  I personally have no problem with homosexuality.  But I also have no problem with people who disagree with me outspokenly--until they think that their opinion should be spoken and mine silenced.

(2) Priesthood and/or Authority.  Reframing the way Mormons talk about their theological incoherence necessarily raises the question of authority in the community.  What standing does authority have in Mormonism as I imagine it?  What is priesthood?  Some people think of these things (authority, priesthood) as static, eternal realities that never change.  While that is a perfectly fine theological notion for you to hold and me to disagree with, I don't think it can be used to create a good community.  A good community requires honesty and openness.  It also requires a degree of parity between participants.  People need to have their innate abilities and contributions validated in meaningful ways (ways that are not obviously artificial).

Right now, LDS General Authorities find themselves out of their depth (it seems to me).  They are not theologians.  They don't see angels (any more).  They don't agree with one another about what the church is or what it should do.  And the church has outgrown their ability to direct it, whether individually or collectively (it seems to me).  Recent events (e.g. the construction of the City Creek Mall, the mass apostasies in the Philippines and South America) demonstrate that the LDS church is a strong regional organization (centered in the Old West, i.e. Brigham Young's state of Deseret) and a weak international one.  My own experience confirms that Mormon culture is markedly different in Deseret than outside it.  I grew up in "the mission field" (i.e. outside Deseret) and then served a mission with Deseretians and lived in Utah for four years while attending BYU.  Before my sojourn among the Deseret Mormons, there were things about Mormon culture I was completely unaware of (e.g. the fact that there is no such thing as "thoughtful dissent" in Deseret; in my "mission-field" Mormonism was a lot more about being a responsible free agent and a lot less about following the prophet, whose words often didn't say much to us outsiders that wasn't harmlessly generic--e.g. "stand for something you believe in").

Mormonism raised me to be independent, to seek personal revelation, to doubt creeds (my own and everybody else's), to pursue knowledge but never to find it.  She raised me this way, then sent me on a mission where she demanded the complete opposite: I put on the missionary badge and suddenly Mormonism was all about conformity, passing every meaningful decision to some external authority, accepting creeds from priesthood leaders without question, and recognizing that all meaningful knowledge was restored by Joseph Smith (not the Joseph Smith I was encountering in my own study of history--a crazy maverick who couldn't hold a thought without contradicting it--but a cardboard model of moral perfection whose ideas were reduced to safe moral platitudes from self-help books written by American salesmen in love with the 1950s).  My mission presidents weren't bad guys, at all, and they did their best to run my (now-defunct) European mission following the program given to them by their priesthood leaders.  Unfortunately, those leaders were completely out of touch with reality--their own history as Mormons and the history of the people I was supposed to convert to the Mormon gospel.

The out-of-touchness that emanates from the high places of Deseret is not really a moral failing.  It makes perfect sense to me that a bunch of well-meaning businessmen with a very inward-looking culture should be out of touch with ideological reality on the street in northern Spain.  I would expect them to be out of touch.  Solving this "problem" is not a matter of getting i-Pads for the brethren or broadcasting their talks to chapels via the latest communications technology.  The LDS church is really good at technical solutions to cultural distance, in my experience--and conversely awful at human solutions.  My mission was a long series of bungling failures to connect.  The few times I made real human connections, I did so by explicitly ignoring my instructions from church leaders and simply "following my gut" (i.e. the Spirit) wherever it led.  I opened myself up to people, inviting them to share a bit of their story with me in exchange for a bit of mine.  And we connected.  We didn't convert on the spot.  I didn't walk away Catholic or Pentecostal or atheist, and they didn't walk away Mormon.  But we talked.  We shared something.  We saw each other as human beings, human beings with dignity and mutual respect and ideas about life whose utility didn't depend on adherence to any particular creed.

My good mission experiences were not about proselytizing (which in my experience is a colossal waste of time and resources, even if your goal is explicitly to get as many committed converts as possible--which mine isn't, just to tip my hand).  In my experience, proselytizing is junk (a bad approach to building meaningful human relationships), and it produces junk (dysfunctional relationships).  Real mission work is about doing what Ammon does in the Book of Mormon--making yourself available to people as a friend, a peer, and a servant.  "What do you care about?" the real missionary asks.  "What do you love?  Show me, so that I can help you tend it.  I care about your little garden of moral goodness.  I want to help you make it a better place--not by rearranging it to look just like mine, but by putting into it the things you want to put in.  You can come look at my life for ideas, if you like, but don't see it as a model for yours.  We are all different, and I respect your difference.  I love it."  If I were prophet, no member of the LDS church would ever serve a proselytizing mission ever again.  Missions would be all about offering service and/or doing real work (for compensation: maybe some missionaries could put in voluntary hours with local or church-owned businesses learning and practicing trades for the benefit of surrounding communities?).  Multi-level marketing sucks, even when you use it to offer people the gospel of Christ.  Pimping Mormonism in this fashion just makes the body of Christ into a harlot (and breaks my heart, honestly: I get really sad when I think about all the time I spent tracting in northern Spain).

But I keep on getting distracted from the real question: what are we to do with priesthood and authority in a Mormonism where anybody can be inspired to do or say anything?  To me it seems that we need to move toward a place where individual members of the church take more responsibility for their own moral agency (where it is good and where it is bad) and give less deference to authorities (thereby relieving the latter of an all-but-unbearable burden).  We cannot expect the Apostles to resign all at once or deny their calling--nor would I advocate for that happening ever, at all.  But it would be good if members stopped having unreal expectations of General Authorities, including Apostles.  It would be good if the Apostles could publicly renounce the lie that they are all agreed about Mormon doctrine, and then go even farther and renounce any pretense to define doctrine for the church (ever).  Ideally, in my mind, the Apostles should retreat from the position of "spokesmen to the entire world" which history has thrust upon them.  Instead, they should be spokesmen for Deseret (as they already are--that is where they do the most good, in terms of creating opportunities for individuals to better themselves freely).  They should make their financial stake in Deseret explicit (opening the books so that tithe-payers see precisely where their contributions go), and exercise their authority most only as CEOs of Deseret's financial empire--rather than pretending to have insight into humanity where they simply don't have it.  They should publicly renounce the expectation that they speak for the entire church on any matter.  They should publicly affirm that the lowliest member of the church has access to as much spiritual truth as they have, from the same sources, and say that they do not aim to shape Mormon belief except by their own example of love--as manifest in their providing various goods and services through the financial empire that they control as heirs to Brigham Young.  Every time a Bruce R. McConkie wants to go after a Eugene England, he should always tell everyone that he is "speaking only as a man" rather than as God's mouthpiece (a role which I think would be best left to all church members, as part of the covenant that we make with the Lord without any ecclesiastical intermediaries).  People should always feel free to disagree, to criticize, and to abstain from behaviors that they find counter-productive (without incurring the charge of heresy and being ridden out of town on a rail).

What about women and the priesthood?  While I admit it might be nice to give women the priesthood, I have too much experience to make this part of my platform for church reform here.  I think there are alternatives available less likely to alienate significant portions of the current church membership (including many women who adamantly refuse priesthood in its current form, for reasons that I cannot fault: I too would not wish to be bishop or anything like it under the current regime).  My initial idea would be to make the Relief Society a lot more prominent.  Balance the Quorum of 12 Apostles with a Quorum of 12 Sisters (not necessarily under that title) holding equal stakes in the financial empire of Deseret.  Make those women talk as much as the men (in General Conference and whatnot).  Make the local Relief Societies functional equivalents to bishoprics (with the same authority, the same budget, and the same local presence: e.g. if the bishop has to sit up on the stand during the sacrament meeting, then the Relief Society president must sit up there too).  But there is no need to change traditional terminology, referring to women in power as priesthood-holders and/or making them officiate in ordinances that they don't necessarily wish to participate in.  I would like the church to come up with ordinances for them to perform (looking to the 19th century for examples of how Mormon women traditionally gave blessings and administrations and explicitly making these part of the Relief Society's mandate).  And I would change the temple ceremonies to make women theologically equivalent to men (i.e. subject only to God and their own conscience, not to any husband).

In sum, my views on how authority should evolve in contemporary Mormonism look something like this.  (1) The current authorities should explicitly refuse to be doctrinal authorities.  They should refuse to dictate morality to Church members.  They should make finances transparent and provide avenues encouraging thoughtful dissent (and proliferations of Mormon ideologies that they need not endorse in any way, shape, or form: by their fruits ye shall know them, not by the endorsement of some Apostle).  (2) Women should become equal partners with men, exercising the same authority in practice even if they use different language and/or ritual to express it.  Make the General Relief Society equal to the Quorum of the 12 (in number and in real power to move resources).  Make the local Relief Society equivalent to the local bishopric.  While I see no need to give women the priesthood explicitly (particularly if/when many of them expressly refuse it), I would like them to have more "ritual duties" in the community (comparable to priesthood duties for men--e.g. give the young women something to do as part of administering the sacrament; make it expressly normal/proper for females to give blessings as they used to, and so forth).  (3) Missions should be service projects (which need not be a net drain on church resources: many of the youth of Deseret, especially, might benefit from working inside the financial empire of the church, ranching or farming or even helping out at City Creek).  If I were in charge of church missions, I would give individual members a greater say in determining their own mission, inviting them to apply to serve in capacities that appeal to them and then reviewing applications (the way real businesses do things).

(3) Community Service.  I put this here because I see this as something that Mormons historically do rather well, even though we talk about it really badly.  We do get things done.  We don't tell people clearly what we are doing (e.g. where their contributions to our enterprises go).  We should change that.  Publish the church books (as soon as possible: I recognize that it might require some time and effort to make them presentable).  Make church businesses something the church talks about (at conferences, in meetings where young men and women decide where and how they might like to serve missions for the church, etc.).  Talk about how the hunting preserves and cattle ranches are beneficial, preserving ecologies that keep humanity alive and well (not just Mormon humanity).  Talk about how valuable cheap education from highly qualified professors is: BYU is a really great place to go to school, even better if its Board of Trustees explicitly renounces any pretense of controlling what students and faculty there think or say in public.  Show the world that Mormons let people do things that matter and speak their minds, even when they say things that strike some authorities as ridiculous and/or awful.  Real faith is robust enough (or perhaps better, antifragile enough) to endure dissent.  Real religion embraces atheism (which it creates: Martin Luther may be accurately characterized as one of the first great modern atheists, who rejected the religion of his day as hopelessly inhumane; Joseph Smith is very similar--embrace this reality rather than fight it).

This brings me to the image Mormonism cultivates with the outside world.  Instead of dancing on a wire all the time between non-Mormon "liberals" (who hate it as a backward, inward-looking community uninterested in the shiny things they value as high culture) and non-Mormon "conservatives" (who hate it as a reminder that their own historical tradition is less coherent than they would like), the LDS church should just be itself.  It should actively, explicitly embrace its entire history: "Yes, Joseph Smith was a crazy idiot.  He was also a prophet of God, kind of like all those other prophets out there--all of whom are more or less insane and dangerous.  Use your own relationship with the Holy Spirit to determine when it is not safe for you associate with them.  The church is here to help you where you may find it useful.  Please ignore it or speak out against it, as the Spirit may move you, where you find it harmful."  It should encourage multiple versions of Mormonism (in Deseret and outside it).  Let BYU professors teach whatever they want, publish or perish on their own terms--as people see the fruits of their Mormonism and embrace or reject it on its own merits rather going off of the opinion of an "authority" whose outlook on humanity and Mormonism is inherently limited, so limited that he cannot see the glaring differences that separate Mark Hoffman from D. Michael Quinn.  Not all "heretics" are the same: don't tar decent human beings like Quinn with the same brush you use to paint thugs like Hoffman.  Quinn belongs at BYU.  Hoffman belongs in jail.  Any power of discernment that fails to notice this cannot be trusted to govern people without explicit limits on its authority, limits that recognize and advertise its very human imperfection.  (If we look into the historical record honestly, we see that speaking as a man means speaking as a total moron on more than one occasion.  Nobody should give any Moses the kind of abject submission that many Mormons want to give theirs.)

Eliminating the three-hour Sunday block frees up a lot of time (not just the time in classes but also a lot of the preparation time that goes into creating the lesson-plans and whatnot for those endless classes that no longer have to happen: they could continue on a voluntary basis as options for people who want them, of course; I certainly wouldn't ban people from spending their entire Sabbath at church).  I would like to make regular service something the individual LDS community does more, as a matter of course.  Instead of making people come in on Saturday to clean bathrooms (and then three hours on Sunday!), have them make a regular service meeting part of the weekly routine.  If you live in Deseret, this might involve doing something for a church business (e.g. some of the welfare farms or canneries, assuming the feds haven't shut those down completely).  If you live outside Deseret, then local bishoprics and Relief Societies can be creative (coming up with opportunities to serve the local communities in ways that are meaningful to Mormons and to the external community). 

Deeds speak much more effectively than words.  Do things that matter, and people will "magically" become more interested in what you have to say (even if they don't believe it for a moment: don't expect them to).  My single biggest problem with institutional Mormonism as it exists currently is that it seems like a giant exercise in talking (not because no action occurs but because it all goes on behind the scenes, as something ancillary and almost unimportant).  And I am pointedly excluded from the talk, as somebody whose discursive perspective lies irretrievably outside the narrow spectrum of doctrinal orthodoxy imagined by the powers-that-be (a spectrum that is entirely artificial and plastic, changing dramatically at the drop of a hat--if we look at its historical evolution).  Let the morons (like me) talk.  And make it obvious that the church is about more than just talk.  Serve people.  Love them enough to let them fail (and even go to hell) on their own terms, learning from their own mistakes (rather than the ones you forced them to make in a fit of well-meaning charity).

There.  Probably nobody will read all of this, but I feel much better having written it down.  I love Mormonism.  But I think she hates me, and I don't see us getting together again any time soon.  So I wish her the best as she moves on to lovers less obnoxious than I am.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Unrighteous Dominion

Every time I think I might make it back to activity as a Mormon, something like this happens, and I realize that I cannot run the priesthood gauntlet.  I cannot live at peace in a community where my standing is constantly hostage to the whims of another man who thinks he speaks for God more than I do.  I can be respectful and even politely deferent to peers, people whom I can respect without obeying subserviently, but I cannot submit my moral autonomy unilaterally to another person, no matter what calling he claims.

I cannot refuse to express my perspective on reality honestly and openly when people ask for it.  I cannot pretend that I think it evil and wrong where I do not.  To do so appears to me profoundly immoral, and such abject obeisance was never part of Mormonism as I aspired to practice it before realizing that my ideas of the religion were impossibly naive--and unpopular with the current crop of LDS Mormon leaders.  Judging from the experience of Tom Kimball linked above, they have it in for people like me; if we come back into the fold and try to participate honestly, then they will run us out as wolves in sheep's clothing.  I don't have the stomach to play Bruno to their Inquisition.

Forced to choose between speaking my truth (which I do not aim to speak to exclusion of other viewpoints) and participating in the church, I pick the former.  I cannot lie about myself, about my life, about reality as I live and breathe it.  I cannot let people assume I endorse ideas that I do not endorse, that I see myself as evil or degenerate for standing apart from practices or preachments that my experience finds more harmful than not.  I am not anti-Mormon, but neither am I anti-me, and I will not be so.  I do not believe that goodness or God demands such self-loathing.  My life teaches me the opposite.  Learning to love others non-pathologically requires learning to treat yourself with respect, too.  I cannot extend to you the trust I refuse to have in myself, ever.  I cannot submit to your judgement usefully if I have no opinion of my own, if you own my integrity more than I do always and without question.  I am the only one responsible for me.  I answer for my sins.  Not you.  And I answer to my conscience, to God, and to the community where my actions have meaning.  Not to you.  I need good counselors, not dictators or tyrants (like Tom Kimball's priesthood leaders).  Leadership is no excuse for bullies to run roughshod over the lives of people just as human as they are.