Sunday, April 27, 2008

The problem with living prophets

My reading for this week was Mosiah 7-11. The Sunday School manual wants to make this reading into a lesson on the importance of following the prophets, which is to say the importance of following church leaders. That isn't really my favorite subject—but let me confront that dislike directly.

Latter-day Saints affirm the existence of living prophets. Potentially, several ideas are embedded in that affirmation, most of which ring true to me:

The scriptural canon is not closed. If prophecy persists from the biblical age into the present, then new texts can be produced which have, for our faith community, the same status as the Bible or our other standard works. In practice, Latter-day Saints have proved sparing about adding new texts to the canon since the death of Joseph Smith; but certainly the adoption of LDS standard works beyond the Bible in the first place hinges on the principle of an open canon and the related principle of modern revelation.

Revelation is a continuing process. Implicit in the idea that we need living prophets is the idea that we need continuing revelation: the existing scriptures are ultimately inadequate. Revelations to living prophets can, at least in theory, supersede past revelations or require us to rethink, even radically, our understanding of what we've taken until now to be truth. In practice, though, the prevailing trend in LDS discourse is to represent the teachings of the living prophets as continuous with existing scripture. Rather than describing modern revelation as a gradual progression in our understanding of truth, correlated discourse prefers to characterize modern prophets as guardians and transmitters of an unchanging gospel.

The biblical tradition of social justice continues today. Prophecy in the ancient Hebrew world had a strong social justice dimension. Prophets denounced oppression and injustice, especially toward the poor. In my reading for this week, the wicked state of affairs that Abinadi denounces in chapter 11 includes arrogance, privilege, and corruption among a priestly hierarchy; the exploitation of the laboring classes by a leisured ruling class (in the form of taxes); and the people's complicity by buying into their state's ideology. If denouncing social injustice is part of the ancient prophetic tradition, then it should be part of a tradition of modern prophecy as well.

God works through spiritual gifts. Nineteenth-century American religious elites regarded phenomena like visions, prophecies, and faith healings as signs of fanatic "enthusiasm." Such things may have been real in biblical times, but they ended with the apostolic age. The Book of Mormon preaches against that view. Spiritual gifts continue today, and God uses them to carry out his work (see, for instance, Moroni 10). It's impossible not to read the discussion of seers in Mosiah 8 in light of Joseph Smith's own use of seerstones. To say that seership is the greatest gift one can have is to powerfully affirm (to privilege, in fact) Joseph Smith's own spiritual gift—a gift that contemporaries maligned as witchcraft or as charlatanry.

My point here is that Mormon affirmations of modern prophecy assert (a) that God can speak through extraordinary experiences like visions and (b) that "folk" ways of knowing (e.g., scrying with seerstones) can be a vehicle for the revelation of truth. With the caveat that careful discernment is required in particular cases, I can sign onto those assertions as general principles.

Inspiration is available to all who carry out God's work. I like to understand living prophets as an extension of the principle that all who serve are entitled to inspiration to guide them. When Gordon B. Hinckley described the process by which the First Presidency and the Twelve make decisions by revelation, what he described was people sitting around talking, expressing differing viewpoints, thinking through issues, and trying to discern the voice of the Spirit until they had arrived at a consensus they felt confident was inspired. There's nothing extraordinary about that process—or alternatively, if it is extraordinary, it's an extraordinary process that can, and should, operate in every arena of church service and within families.

To reject Church leaders' teachings is to reject the revealed will of God. And here's where the doctrine of living prophets becomes a problem for me. The doctrine becomes a basis for elevating the authority of Church leaders to a point where their teachings and policies are effectively beyond challenge. Hence we get slogans like, "When the prophet speaks, the debate is over," or "The Lord will never permit the prophet to lead the Church astray." Apologists or Church public relations are always quick to insist that members are perfectly free to disagree with Church leaders. What isn't said is that when you disagree with Church leaders, it is always assumed that you have and are a problem; it's unthinkable that Church leaders' teachings or policies could be the problem. There are no rhetorical grounds in Mormonism for directly questioning the truth of living Church leaders' teachings or the wisdom of their policy decisions. It can only be done very quietly and very subtly—preferably entirely out of public view. You cannot say openly—even in a soft-spoken humble tone—"I think President Monson or Elder ______ is wrong about..." without running the risk of your bishop wanting to interview you to discuss the spiritual problems that prevent you from fully sustaining the Lord's chosen mouthpiece.

This is an unhealthy institutional dynamic. It reflects a lingering impulse, from the days of persecution, to "close ranks." Dissent is understood as a threat of the same species as the apostates who wanted to assassinate Joseph Smith and aided the anti-Mormon mobs. Elevating Church leaders beyond criticism exposes the Church to the dangers of unrighteous dominion and allows members' respect for Church leaders to bleed toward idolatry. There's no question that there need to be ordered channels of authority in the Church; and as in any institution, there have to be limits to how much dissent can be tolerated before the institution says, "We're sorry, but you can't really function as a member of this organization." My concern is that those limits are drawn much too narrowly and that the channels of authority function too much in a top-down fashion.

The First Presidency and the Twelve have ultimate policy-making authority in the Church, as well as the authority to declare what, at any given moment, has the status of "official" Church teaching. Those are the perogatives of their office. I'm confident that they seek—and receive—inspiration as they make decisions about what to teach and how to administer the Church. It's also true that the men who hold those offices have limitations. Their ability to "study out in their minds" or to "inquire of the Lord" about different possibilities is constrained by the scope of their life experience, their education and training, and their culturally circumscribed ways of thinking and seeing. These constraints on Church leaders' ability to discover or confront new possibilities are exacerbated by the hierarchical nature of Church governance and Mormon tendencies toward conformism, i.e., a tendency to attract the like-minded and to repel people who don't fit within narrowly defined boundaries of diversity. Sanctioned forums for democratic debate about Church doctrine and governance—outside closed doors, I mean—would open up new potential avenues for revelation in the Church, new catalysts for inspiration to those who are responsible to administer the Church at the global level.

Equating certain ecclesiastical offices with the status of "prophet, seer, and revelator" in a way that prevents potentially fruitful criticism of Church leaders' teachings and policies is not a healthy application of the principle of living prophets. It makes a mockery of the kind of individual discernment about Church leaders' teachings that Brigham Young advocated in his famous "Go to God" passage. (Unfortunately, Brigham Young's own authoritarian style made a mockery of the discernment he advocated in that passage.) The party line these days is that praying to know the truth of Church leaders' teachings is a test of our own faithfulness and receptivity to revelation, not a test of Church leaders. The result is a profoundly conservative deference to hierarchical authority and the status quo that I fear impedes the Saints' ability to grow in knowledge and understanding. To phrase it paradoxically: the Saints' undue deference to "prophets, seers, and revelators" impedes continuing revelation. The story of Abinadi is a story of a prophetic voice coming from outside the ruling religious hierarchy. Such a voice would be unable to gain a hearing in the LDS Church.

Friday, April 25, 2008

An Inconvenient Truth

I just finished watching An Inconvenient Truth. (The timing is coincidental, but I suppose you could think of this as a belated Earth Day post.) I could kvetch about the way the film and the slide show it's based on serve as vehicles for Gore's political personality . . . but let's not strain at gnats and swallow camels here. Humanity is in deep trouble; life on earth as it has come to be organized by the confluence of various natural forces over the last several thousand years is in deep trouble. We have been unfaithful—if not just incompetent—stewards of creation.

I knew I was going to get all depressed and morbid and apocalyptic by watching this film. Gore gives it a quintessentially American optimistic ending: we can solve the problem; we have everything we need now; we can even do it without sacrificing that most cherished American ideal—wealth. That was actually the term he used: wealth. I had to grind my teeth at that point. God forbid that Americans should have to make real sacrifices in our living standards—and that we should be required to make them by force of law as part of the social compact. I know that you have to start somewhere; I have faith that by small and simple things, great things are brought to pass. But to suggest that climate change can be solved—and all those disasters averted—if people will voluntarily carry out the individual-level advice that flashes across the scene during the closing credits (change your thermostat; buy more efficient light bulbs) strikes me as naive. We need more radical solutions. We need more radical ways of reorganizing how the human family does things. To invoke an analogy: This isn't a time for a "Pennies by the Inch" drive; it's a time to implement the law of consecration.

I have faith—or at least I have hope—that the God who created this world can help us save the ecological order on which we, and the other living things we share this planet with, depend. I have faith in the power of Christ's resurrection to bring about temporal as well as spiritual salvation—that the forces of life can triumph over the forces of death. But I was also raised on a work of scripture that is all about the collapse of civilizations, and I wonder: Am I living in a time like the time of Mormon and Moroni? Am I watching my society march toward a destruction we could once have averted but which is now inevitable?

I can't think about these things. It's too paralyzing. I think sometimes it is entirely possible that I will die of starvation, in the not-too-distant future, in a civilization that has collapsed and a world that has become uninhabitable. I really worry that things may be that bad. But of course you can't dwell on that kind of thinking if you're going to live your life in a productive way. So you get up in the morning, and you go to work, and you worry about the little everyday things that need to be done to keep your life and your world going the way it is for now . . . and you hope that somehow you'll escape seeing it all someday collapse around you.

That's the morbidly depressing part. The infuriating part is the populist, anti-intellectual skepticism that retards the development of a political will in this country to take climate change seriously . Those loud, inflated, arrogant amateurs who imagine themselves qualified to challenge or dismiss the conclusions of the trained experts. It's the dark side of American democracy—this Jacksonian glorification of the common folk that says "the people" can know better than the experts with their high-falutin' college educations. That Jacksonian anti-intellectualism has been a hugely important formative impulse in Mormonism, so this hits especially close to home for me. "Don't be deceived by the so-called experts who predict ecological disaster; we know from the scriptures that the earth is full and to spare"—that kind of thing.

I'm worn out from getting depressed and angry. Let's pray. Bluntly.


Creator God—

We're f-----, aren't we?
Help us. Please.

There are people who are trying to make a difference.
Breathe out your life-giving, transforming Spirit through their efforts.
Magnify their contributions.
Make them instruments of temporal salvation.

I pray for an administration in this country that will sign the Kyoto accord.
I pray for a political will to mandate environmentally friendly change on the part of corporations, not simply to provide "economic incentives" for them to change. I pray, in other words, for real corporate accountability.
I pray that people of faith will become a more potent, prophetic force on behalf of effective social stewardship of the environment.

I pray that disaster can be averted.
I pray that Nineveh will be spared. You know what I mean by that.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Conversion, covenant, and the Christian life

My reading for this week was Mosiah 4-6. Here's my outline:

4:1-3  A revivalist's wildest dream come true: In response to Benjamin's preaching, the people cry out to God en masse for Christ's atonement to be applied in their lives. In answer to their prayer, the Spirit comes upon them. Feelings of fear and worthlessness are purged away, replaced with joy and peace of conscience. In 4:6, 11 Benjamin describes the change they have experienced in terms of coming to know, or having "tasted," God's goodness, patience, long-suffering, and love.

Note that this kind of conversion experience has two phases: first, the convert is brought to experience guilt and fear; then those feelings are alleviated by the knowledge that Christ has atoned for the convert's sins. This process resembles what psychiatrist Marc Galanter, who studies charismatic religious groups, calls "the pincer effect." According to Galanter's theory, charismatic groups reinforce adherents' commitment by (1) placing pressures on them that cause them emotional distress, then (2) providing means to alleviate that distress. In this case, Benjamin's preaching creates emotional distress, causing his people to feel that they are "less than the dust of the earth" (4:2) and in danger of "a never-ending torment" for having incurred "the wrath of God" (5:5). But Benjamin's preaching also provides a way to relieve that distress, i.e., praying to God for forgiveness through Christ's atonement.

I don't regard this as a healthy dynamic. I can testify from my own experience of the profound relief that comes from embracing the idea that Christ has atoned from my sins and failings. My mission, especially, was a period when I frequently felt inadequate and frequently experienced relief through praying for forgiveness and reflecting on Christ's love as manifest through the atonement. In retrospect, I wish that the rhetoric used to motivate missionaries hadn't been so perfectionistic—talk to everybody, be exactly obedient, make more sacrifices, exercise greater faith—and thus hadn't worked to produce so much guilt in me in the first place. I thank God—literally—that I had teachings about the atonement to turn to in order to relieve my guilt. But looking back, I think I would have been a lot healthier if I hadn't experienced so much guilt in the first place.

My point is: I'm not thrilled about Benjamin's version of a revival camp meeting—preach guilt and hellfire 'til they throw themselves on the altar of mercy—as a model for conversion. But I do hear in these verses an affirmation that Christ's work, and the Spirit's work, is to abolish feelings of fear and worthlessness, replacing them with experiential knowledge of God's goodness, patience, love, and awesome, uplifting grandeur.

4:4-30  Benjamin instructs his people in the Christian life, promising that if they live his teaching, they will "be filled with the love of God" and "grow in the knowledge . . . of that which is just and true" (v. 12). He exhorts them to:
  • Pray daily. Benjamin seems to present this discipline as a means to cultivate or practice humility (v. 11).

  • Live peaceably, not seeking to injure others (v. 13).

  • Do justice, rendering to everyone what is due to them (v. 13).

  • See that "your children" are physically cared for and are taught to love and serve one another (vv. 14-15). I wondered if we could interpret the "your" in "your children" as addressing the community as a whole, not to parents only; i.e., the whole community is responsible for the nurture of the rising generation.

  • Assist people in physical want (vv. 16-27). This is the bulk of Benjamin's address. While expounding this theme, he teaches that:

    • Christians must not "moralize" poverty in the sense of conceiving of poverty as a consequence of individual wrong-doing (vv. 17-18).

    • Christians should cultivate a spirit of solidarity with impoverished people, not just a spirit of service, by recognizing that we are all beggars before God (vv. 19-21).

    • Assisting the poor is not an act of largesse, but a matter of stewardship, a matter of redistributing goods which do not really belong to us in the first place (v. 22).

5:1-5  Benjamin's people testify that their conversion experience has given them a disposition to do good continually and has filled them with a spirit of prophecy. (Both here and throughout chapter 4, I was intrigued how conversion is presented not only as a means of gaining redemption, but also as a means of gaining knowledge through the Spirit. It underscores the importance of knowledge and personal revelation in Mormon spirituality.) The people express their willingness to enter a covenant to do God's will all their lives.

Note that this is a conversion en masse. An entire people has simultaneously undergone a revival-style conversion experience. This caught my eye because in American religious history, revivalism is typically understood to have an individualizing influence as distinct from Puritan notions of covenant, which presupposed an entire community of saints. The story of King Benjamin's people fuses individual-oriented revivalism and Puritan-style covenant: in this story, revivalism produces individual transformations on a universal scale, so that the entire community is brought into covenant together. Basically, this story plays out the Puritan ideal for how you forge a righteous community. Later, as we'll read, King Benjamin's people eventually run into the same problem the Puritans ran into: what becomes of the covenant, and thus your identity as a Christian people, when members of the rising generation don't experience the individual transformation that their parents did? Elsewhere, the Book of Mormon presents other ways of envisioning conversion that involve only some members of a family or community, with the tensions and divisions that creates.

All of this presents something of a spiritual challenge for me, because my status as an exile from the community whose traditions I still claim as my own leads me to prefer to conceive of the covenant as an individual commitment rather than as an expression of a communal identity. Certainly Mormon covenant-making—baptism, the endowment—has an individualized dimension: you, as an individual, make promises with God and you, as an individual, are accountable to God for how you live out those promises. But it's also true that the Christian covenant creates a community, a people, a body, the body of Christ, the body of the baptized, the assembly of the saints, the church. I don't have at this point in my life a clearly defined communal identity as a Christian, meaning that I don't formally belong (ergo, am not wholly committed to) a particular Christian community. That's a problem but one I don't yet know how to resolve.

5:6-15  Benjamin teaches his people that because of the covenant they have made, they will be called the children of Christ. They have been both spiritually begotten of Christ and spiritually born of Christ, which is to say that Christ is both their father and their mother (v. 7). If you're interested in female images of the divine in LDS tradition, underline that verse.

As Christ's children, Christ's covenant people, we take on Christ's name. This is to say that we become one with Christ: because Christ stands at God's right hand, we, too, by virtue of bearing Christ's name, will also be called to stand at God's right hand on the day of judgment (vv. 9-10). Another image we're given here is that taking Christ's name means that Christ "seals" us as his (v. 15). We see here the germ of a concept that will be much elaborated in Smith's later teaching. Here the point of saying that we are sealed to Christ is that he claims us and will not allow us to be separated from him. I was about to add the caveat, "unless we choose to separate ourselves from him." That conditionality is certainly implicit in Benjamin's teaching, and there's a sense in which I believe it's true: Christ reaches out to us but cannot compel our response. At the same time, I also believe there's a sense in which Christ remains with us always even when we turn away: in that sense, his unwillingness to let us go is what leaves open the possibility of grace.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Does the gospel require eternal punishment?

My reading for this week was the first portion of King Benjamin's address (Mosiah 1-3). In chapter 2, he exhorts his people to commit themselves to the service of God—which means the service of their fellow beings—in gratitude for the unrepayable gift of life. In chapter 3, he proclaims the gospel—"the glad tidings of great joy" (3:3)—as it was taught to him by an angel. The highlights of that proclamation are as follows:
  • Jesus Christ is the Creator God come down among human beings to dwell with us in a tabernacle of clay.
  • Christ's ministry is to bring wholeness to body and spirit—i.e., to heal disease and disability and to cast out evil from people's hearts.
  • Christ suffers temptation and pain—the normal pains of the body, plus anguish for human wickedness, the suffering that human beings inflict on one another.
  • Christ is rejected and crucified but rises from the dead to become our judge. (My emphasis when I read that is on the idea that our eternal judge is the empathetic, suffering Christ.)
  • Through Christ's atonement, yielding to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, we can become saints, i.e., holy people: humble, full of love, trusting God's parental nurture.
Next week, I'll focus my reflection on what King Benjamin's address and his people's response teach about how Christians should live out the glad tidings. This week, I feel moved to focus on a not so obviously joyful theme that recurs through chapters 2-3: eternal punishment.

Throughout the Book of Mormon, we encounter a conventional dualistic understanding of divine judgment: the righteous will be lifted up to be with God in his heavenly kingdom at the last day, while the wicked will be dragged down to hell, cast into everlasting fire, etc. At the same time, we find evidence of an impulse to soften or step back somewhat from hellfire rhetoric. The Book of Mormon clearly rejects universalism (salvation for all), but it also clearly rejects doctrines of damnation for unbaptized children or unevangelized adults. This is to say that in the context of 19th-century America, the Book of Mormon dissented from doctrines that were orthodox for Calvinists, who constituted a significant segment of the American elite. On these doctrines, at least, the Book of Mormon participated in a liberalizing trend among 19th-century Americans repelled by teachings about infant damnation: Harriet Beecher Stowe lost her faith in Calvinism in large part because of such teachings, and Mark Twain made it the target of trenchant satire. Damnation for the heathen doesn't seem to have aroused quite as much outrage and incredulity among 19th-century American Protestants as the damnation of infants did; but in the late 19th century especially, liberal trends in theology did pave the way for a stronger retreat in the 20th century from the idea that unevangelized people are without salvation (which, pushed farther, led to a retreat from Christian exclusivism altogether).

The Mormon retreat from these doctrines can be seen in Mosiah 3. In verses 16 and 18, we're told that Christ's blood atones for little children, so that "the infant perisheth not that dieth in his infancy." Little children are blameless before God (3:20); in fact, little children are the model of the holy life to which Christians should aspire (3:18-19). We're also told in this chapter that Christ's blood atones for people "who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned" (3:11).

In addition, King Benjamin's address pulls back from a literal reading of fire-and-brimstone rhetoric and from the image of a God who actively consigns the wicked to eternal suffering. In 2:38-39 and then again in 3:24-27, Benjamin says that at the judgment day, the wicked will be awakened to a sense of their own guilt, which will cause them to "shrink from the presence of the Lord" into a state of misery and spiritual anguish which is described as being like unquenchable fire. Note that two adjustments are being made here in conventional language about hell. First, in this account, the wicked are not cast away from God's presence; they separate themselves from God out of a recognition of their guilt. In other words, this account pulls back from a notion of hell as the consequence of divine fiat, as a punishment imposed on people. Second, this account retreats from images of people literally burning in fire forever: hell is interiorized as a state of mind and thus, in a certain sense, becomes a relatively "kinder, gentler" hell.

Later, certain strands in LDS scripture and tradition will pull back even farther from orthodox ideas about hell and damnation. D&C 19—a revelation penned right around the time the Book of Mormon went on sale—contains an esoteric teaching (esoteric because it was supposed to be reserved for insiders) which states that "eternal" or "endless" punishment does not mean punishment with no end, strongly implying that punishment for sin will have an end. I have a hunch that this teaching was supposed to be esoteric because it's moving in the direction of universalism, which the Book of Mormon repudiates. Another cautious move toward universalism—at least opening up the possibility for a universalistic vision of all people eventually being redeemed—is D&C 29:27-30, where the Lord says that while he has never declared that the wicked can return from everlasting fire, he also hasn't spoken his final word. Similarly, D&C 76:44-48 says that it is unknown whether the suffering of the sons of perdition will have an end.

The whole concept of the three degrees of glory has a strong universalist thrust, because it restricts "eternal punishment" to the sons of perdition while granting "salvation" in a kingdom of glory to everyone else. That includes "liars," "adulterers," and other such wrongdoers, who are "cast down to hell . . . until the fulness of times, when Christ shall have . . . perfected his work," at which point they shall be redeemed from hell (76:88, 103-106; cf. 76:38-39). In this vision, then, hell ends for all except the sons of perdition—and even for them, the text doesn't foreclose the possibility of eventual redemption. Regarding the unevangelized, or those who accept the gospel after death, D&C 76:72-75 places them in the terrestrial kingdom. That teaching is superseded by Joseph Smith's later teachings about vicarious work for the dead, which makes the blessings of exaltation available alike to those who accept the gospel in this life and those who accept it afterward. This isn't universalism, strictly speaking. But extrapolating from the doctrines of the three degrees of glory and salvation for the dead, some Latter-day Saints will later argue for the possibility of advancement from one degree of glory to the next, which does allow for a Mormon version of universalism. Of course, there are other LDS teachers who reject this possibility.

My point is this: Within the Mormon tradition, there are multiple impulses pulling against one another around questions of hell and damnation. Historically, Latter-day Saints have wanted to maintain a belief in hell—that is, a belief that people will suffer or otherwise be penalized in the afterlife for wrongdoing—as an expression of principles of agency, accountability, eternal moral laws, and an exclusivist understanding of the way to salvation (i.e., only Jesus Christ can redeem us from damnation). At the same time, though, Latter-day Saints have been impelled to retreat from literal visions of hellfire, to reject emphatically damnation for infants and the unevangelized, and to insist on possibilities for salvation after death. The latter set of impulses, I believe, are the Spirit blowing through our faith community, and I'd like to see us let ourselves be blown further in that direction. We don't need to have exclusive claims to salvation or doctrines of eternal punishment in order to affirm accountability, moral judgments, or a commitment to a Christ-centered life. I don't see how the gospel can be called "glad tidings of great joy" as long as there is embedded in that message a vision of a God who mandates, or even is reconciled to, endless suffering. Our bad choices carry enough harmful natural consequences—even devastating or lethal consequences—that people don't need to have the threat of suffering in the afterlife hung over their heads, the way King Benjamin's discourse does, and the way the Book of Mormon in general does. (I'm reminded of Brigham Young's remark that "you can put into a gnat's eye all the souls of the children of men that are driven into heaven by preaching hell-fire.") Christ's work is deliverance from suffering: it's also, as we're about to see in Mosiah 4, deliverance from fear and guilt. A holy life as described in Mosiah 2-3—a life lived out of gratitude, love for God and our fellow beings, and trust in God's parental nurture—is not motivated by fear of divine punishment or of choosing the wrong path to salvation.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Thanksgiving for a good class

This semester, I'm teaching a class on new religious movements and other kinds of religious innovation in the U.S. Over the past couple of weeks we've been reading about a variety of subjects related to how charismatic religious groups relate to outsiders: boundary maintenance and negative feedback, violence, relations with law enforcement, religious freedom jurisprudence, and anticult movements. And then all of a sudden, apopros to things we've been reading about, the Texas state government and the FBI launched the still unfolding raid on the FLDS compound in Eldorado.

I'm not personally inclined to be very sympathetic to the FLDS, but I have been taken aback by what seems an exaggerated, heavy-handed reaction on the part of government. All the community's children taken into state custody? Cadaver-sniffing dogs?! I could end up eating crow, of course, depending on what the raid uncovers, and there's no question that Texas protective services needed to do something in response to the phone call they received alleging physical abuse. (The FLDS appear considerably more concerned about rallying around the accused man and making speeches about religious persecution than they do about expressing concern for the girl and investigating the possibility of abuse.) But I have strong suspicions that underlying this raid is hysteria related to a set of problematic presuppositions that come into play when the FLDS are labelled a "cult": that the group is prone to violence and that members are brainwashed or terrorized or are otherwise not acting as free agents.

Anyway, I wanted to have a discussion with my students about the raid, given its relevance to issues we've been talking about in class. I hoped the raid—and the taking of the children especially—could drive home vividly what's at stake in these issues. I was concerned, though, about whether my own passion about the subject would tend to silence students rather than draw them out—and whether I'd be able to stay coherent or whether my mind and mouth would start jumping all over the place, given how many different issues are involved and all the ways they intersect and connect with one another.

Long story short, I prayed for help on my way in to campus this morning. When I got to the classroom, I sat at the side of the room instead of in front, like I normally do, and had everyone pull their chairs into a tight circle to signal that I wanted this to be a different kind of discussion, more heavily student-involved, destabilizing my own authority as teacher. I tried to clearly subjectivize my own views by laying out some of my own investments in a way I don't normally do (letting them know that my own religious convictions are liberal and therefore I'm naturally inclined to take a dim view of a movement like the FLDS, which is radically conservative in key ways, while at the same time I feel a professional obligation to work against my own biases; articulating my ambivalence about some of the positions taken in our recent readings). I noticed students exchanging glances as I was getting started—"What's this about? Where's this going?" But it ended up being by far our most engaged discussion of the semester, with the greatest number of students participating. I asked them to dispense with raising hands today—just dive in—to keep the discussion flowing more freely between students instead of back and forth to and from me. Lots of views were expressed; students were in conversation with one another; I was detached enough from my own feelings to articulate different perspectives on the issues to keep throwing new light on things.

When it was over, I went to catch my bus home and sat at the stop feeling the rush of a great class session. I haven't felt that in my teaching lately as often as I used to when I was a writing instructor, or when I was teaching ESL night classes. Leading discussions—as opposed to a more performative style of teaching—is hard for me. And as I sat at the bus stop, I thought: I need to give thanks to God for this discussion. And I wanted to do it extravagantly, which meant I wanted to do it publicly. So here goes.


God of light, Lord of reason, Spirit of truth—

I give thanks for the discussion I led in my class today.
I probably shouldn't even say "I led."
I give thanks for the discussion my students and I had today.
I give thanks that they felt able and emboldened to speak.
I give thanks that the conversation circulated as freely among them as it did.
I give thanks that I articulated what I felt moved to say as clearly as I did.

Thank you for guiding me, both in my planning beforehand and "in the very hour."

I hope that students found the conversation fruitful and thought-provoking.
I pray that it will continue to work in their minds, to deepen their grasp of the issues we've been reading about and their implications.
I pray that today's conversation will help them write better, more sophisticated final exam essays.

I pray for the children who have been taken from the FLDS compound.
I pray that the courts will make wise, just, humane, measured decisions about those children's futures.
I pray for appropriate restraint on the part of government officials as they work to protect the vulnerable.
I pray for a spirit of reason to be shed abroad: in media coverage and commentary, among law enforcement, in public opinion, and among the FLDS.
I pray for FLDS who may be experiencing physical or emotional harm, whose experience in that religious community may involve fear, or doubt, or a sense of being trapped or coerced.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

General Conference / Enos to WofM

I didn't watch General Conference this weekend. It's an event that doesn't hold spiritual significance for me anymore, at least not for now. General Conference is very much a display of the institutional church, of the hierarchy. Instead of an instrument for democratic governance, as described in D&C 20 (and as in the Community of Christ/RLDS tradition), LDS General Conferences have long been a one-way forum in which the leadership preaches at the membership. General Conference addresses become part of the textual corpus of the tradition: later I can sift through them to find the nuggets of wheat among the chaff—the spots where the Spirit shines through to me despite church correlation's efforts to ensure that only "the orthodox religion" is preached. (There's an allusion in that last sentence that probably won't mean anything to people who were endowed after 1990.)

The time in my life when General Conference meant the most to me was my mission. There were two reasons for that: the chance to gather in Santo Domingo, to see old companions and investigators and members from previous areas; and the feeling of connection to church headquarters, which for me, an American, meant the church "at home." Even as recently as the last years I lived in Salt Lake before moving to North Carolina, I'd go down to Temple Square at some point during Conference, sit on Main Street Plaza reading a book by Chaim Potok or Isaac Bashevis Singer, and enjoy the feeling of being on the margins. That enjoyment probably encapsulates my relationship to Mormonism.

Maybe I'll reflect more on my feelings and experiences around General Conference when it rolls around again in future months. But for now, I want to move on to say a few words about my Book of Mormon reading this week: the short books from Enos to Words of Mormon.


A few random thoughts:

Enos 1:1 The reference to Enos having been raised in the "nurture . . . of the Lord" caught my eye in light of last week's reflection on nourishment as the heart of Christ's work.

Enos 1:9, 11 An effective prayer life moves us from concern with self to concern for others—at first those dear to us, ultimately those we consider our enemies.

Jarom 1:4 The phrase "communion with the Holy Spirit" jumped out at me. It seems to be one of the very few places in Restoration scripture (the index shows only one other passage, in the D&C) that refer to "communion" with God. "Communion" as a term for describing how we can relate with God has been very important to me.

Omni 1:25 "There is nothing which is good save it comes from the Lord." I'm drawn to the ecumenical potential of this verse: the good wrought in and by other religious traditions—or outside religions altogether—can be understood as the work of Christ. There's still a kind of imperialism at work in that formulation if Christianity is understood as the transparently real to which everything else points unawares, or as the fulness which everyone else grasps only in part (as contrasted to thinking of Christianity also as a partial understanding). But this formula is better than more dualistic alternatives.

Omni 1:26 "Offer your whole souls as an offering to him." The essence of the law of consecration.

WofM 1:7 The Spirit whispers as it works within us; that is, its voice isn't distinct or clear. It's hard to understand, and easy to misunderstand. Hence a life lived by the guidance of the Spirit must be flexible, adaptable, and with an element of risk-taking.