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.

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