Sunday, October 26, 2008

My dark Mormon pessimism

And so it ends. A week after I read 4 Nephi, with its utopian vision of a communitarian society living in peace and unity and justice—a week and a few chapters later (Mormon 1-6), Nephite society has been obliterated and the surviving Lamanites are degenerating into savages. Yes, I'm wincing at the 19th-century notions of "civilization" versus "savagery," especially as they're being applied here to Native Americans. But let's set that aside for the moment. Let me listen to the text. Let me share what I've learned from it.

I'm in the middle of doing a seven-week discussion series on American religious history for the Episcopal church Hugo and I attend. Every week I pose a question about this particular church's identity or mission, and then I sketch broad historical contexts that can help the group think through an answer to the question. Last week's question was "Why does the Advocate have a woman priest?" The contexts I provided included not only the post-1960s push toward women's ordination among mainline Protestants and Catholics but the much longer history of women's leadership in more marginal religious movements and the less visible but indispensible contributions women have always made to America's religious organizations.

In our discussion at the end, the priest wondered aloud if in the long view, women's ordination in the Episcopal Church might prove a historical blip, given the increasing clout of the global South, where much more conservative views on gender and sexuality tend to dominate. (A few years ago, I expressed a similar fear during a brief conversation with Susan Skoor, an apostle in the Community of Christ.) Another participant in the discussion made a quite passionate speech to the effect that God wills the advancement of women, and God's word does not return empty, ergo fundamentalists who fight progress on this question are fighting a battle bound to lose. I disagreed, also rather dramatically. I said, essentially, that since God has made us free to choose our own way, humanity is entirely capable of instituting centuries of oppression or even destroying ourselves—"slit our throat" was the expression I used. I hadn't intended to get quite that intense, so I laughed and said, "That's my dark Mormon pessimism talking."

And by "dark Mormon pessimism," I meant precisely what I read about this week. The Book of Mormon is ultimately a dark, tragic book. It's a story about failure. It's a story about a society on a path to destruction, and the best that God's servants can do is (a) save their own souls through their faithful witness and (b) try to convince as many other souls as they can to accept Jesus before they're killed and dispatched to the judgment bar. It's incredibly bleak. In fact, it doesn't seem very characteristically Mormon, if you're judging by the quiet tones of General Conference or the unflagging optimism of a Gordon B. Hinckley. It's a worldview that seems more appropriate to Christian fundamentalists waiting for the Rapture and the rise of the Antichrist and imagining that people who don't accept Jesus as their personal Savior before they leave this world are doomed to burn in hell forever. I'm thinking of a conservative evangelical I met some years back at an interfaith conference on sexuality who said that he saw liberal Christianity as a burning building, and he was trying to save what few souls he could from the conflagration. That's Mormon's worldview—except that Mormon reaches a point where he's convinced the people's hearts are so hard that there isn't even any point in witnessing anymore.

In fact, Mormon's worldview seems to me to be even more pessimistic than early Mormon apocalypticism. At least the early Mormons imagined that Jesus was going to come soon to save them. Mormon doesn't even have that hope. His hope lies centuries in the future, when the Book of Mormon will be recovered. But for the present—his present—everything that he has worked for, or that Alma worked for, or that Nephi son of Lehi worked for back in 600 BC... it's all come to nothing.

Which is why I can't buy into the kind of liberalism that imagines progress is inevitable. My religious tradition's foundational text tells me otherwise. God has given us the freedom to choose our own path, but that means that if the consequences of our choices prove disastrous, we're trapped. God isn't going to intervene, or at least God's ability to intervene is entirely dependent on the willingness of human agents to work with him, which limits what God can do. In the case of the Book of Mormon, the best God can do at the end is find someone to write up a record and bury it so it can come forth at a later date as an instrument for working toward the fulfilment of the millennial promises. But there's no Rapture here, no deus ex machina. There's no magic forcefield shielding the righteous. The whole ship goes down, and Mormon and Moroni go down with it.

Progress doesn't just happen. God wills it to happen, God is constantly calling us, God's Spirit is constantly blowing across the face of the earth, touching hearts, inspiring minds, raising up prophetic voices here and there, breathing life and power into movements organized for good. I believe that. The story of the Restoration gives me a vivid set of images for how that happens. If earth asks, heaven will answer. We can be endowed with power from on high. We can proclaim the truth before kings and rulers. We can gather the exiles. We can make a feast for the poor. We can build the kingdom. We can build Zion. We can heal the sick. We can make the desert blossom. We can bring the nations together rejoicing. We can help God establish centuries of uninterrupted peace. We can do this. Or we can pursue a path that will destroy our societies. The choice is ours; and if we choose wrong, there will come a point, as it does for the Nephites, when "the day of grace [is] passed" (Morm. 2:15), when we reach the point where nothing can undo the damage we've caused or prevent the collapse of everything we and generations past have created. Maybe in the distant future God can find a way to pick up the pieces and start again. But that won't help us in the here and now. We'll just be ruins and a voice from the dust.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I voted today

I voted today. I always find it such an odd experience. You go, you stand in line, you get your ballot, you take the time to fill it out, you stick it in the machine, you get your "I voted" sticker so you can trumpet your civic virtue in the streets. And I always feel like—what possible difference can my one vote make? Is it worth my going through this bother? But of course that's the strange thing about the system: my one vote does become part of these numbers we'll be tracking on election night.

I don't know how to articulate the thought that's vaguely pulsating in my mind. I want to wax almost mystical about this—about the importance of the one; that this vast multitude of voters is made up of individual voters like me who each take the time to do something that in and of itself doesn't seem like it could actually make the slightest difference in affecting the multitude but all together become the multitude. "By small and simple things are great things brought to pass." It's a cliché, but it fits.


God of the nations—

I feel an urge to pray, but I don't know what to say.
"Let Obama win" or "Let the Democrats win" sounds... I dunno... tacky. Partisan. Beneath your dignity somehow.
But you tell us to lay the desires of our hearts before you. So there you have mine.

Anyway, what I want in the big scheme isn't an Obama victory, per se, or a farther-reaching Democratic victory.

What I want is a government that will make peace, that will care for the poor and the needy, that will do justice, that will practice wise stewardship of the environment, that will create sound policies for the ordering of our common life in this country and for the ordering of our relations with a larger global community.

I voted today for a slate of candidates who I hope will work for those things.
If they win, then I pray that they'll actually govern well.
And if they lose, then I pray that the winners will be moved to govern well.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

4 Nephi: Visions for an ideal world

My reading this week—3 Nephi 27 through 4 Nephi—is rich, and there's a lot I could focus on. I feel moved, though, to follow a line of thought that connects with my post last week on the millennial vision of Mormonism inspiring me to hope for a world where liberal religion triumphs over fundamentalism and liberal conceptions of human rights prevail over abominations like anti-gay violence.

So to follow through on that, I'm going to focus on 4 Nephi, which tries to imagine what an ideal society would look like, how to get there, and what can keep it from happening or enduring. Let me say up front that I don't entirely agree with this chapter's vision—or, to be more precise, I feel the Spirit cautioning me that aspects of this chapter's vision are limited and misguided and pointed in an ultimately unfruitful direction. But I'm in dialogue with the chapter, trusting that the Spirit wants to use my reflection on these words to lead me into a greater understanding of truth.

Writing those words makes me realize that I forgot to pray at the beginning of this scripture study session. So let me pause to do that—to pray for my mind and soul to be enlightened, to pray for the Spirit to teach me, to give me in the very hour what to say that may be edifying for people who might read this reflection.


4 Nephi tries to answer the question: How does an ideal world come into being? What does an ideal world look like? The answer is that it's a world where everyone owns everything in common so there's no such thing as rich and poor. There's also no such thing as bond or free, which is a part I tend to gloss over because slavery feels past to me (though there are activists who would warn me that it's not), but that's an important part of the vision, too. Everyone is free, whatever that means exactly. Everyone is dealt with justly. There's universal peace. There's no contention, no strife, no violence. There are no ethnic divisions, no meaningful tribal/racial identities, no partisan identities. Desolation produced by natural disaster is rebuilt, to the extent it can be. The society is prosperous—there's abundance. And there's healing—that's important for this author, too. Miracles are performed through the exercise of Christ's power that improve people's lives in physical ways.

Okay, so there's our vision of the ideal world. So far, I can sign onto this. Amen! May it be! Thy kingdom come!

Now: how does this come about?

For the author of 4 Nephi, it comes about because everyone is converted—truly converted, transformed, sanctified—to the gospel of Christ. Everyone becomes part of the church of Christ, which is therefore the only church in existence. And it is one. There's no multiple denominations recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ in some invisible ecumenical sense. There's one organization, led by the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus and their successors.

So, two things going on here. One: Everyone is converted to the same religion; everyone belongs to the same church, which means in practical terms that everyone submits to the same religious authorities. That's a big part of what it means to say that there are no contentions and disputations (think back to 3 Nephi 11, where Jesus ends contention and disputation by laying down the law for once and for all and threatening damnation to everyone who doesn't obey). Two: The love of God dwells in the hearts of the people, as a consequence of their having been truly converted.

You can probably tell which part of this I'm going to resist and which part of this I like—which, to be precise again, really means which part of this I sense the Spirit telling me represents the word and will of God. To borrow words of Joseph Smith: Which part of this tastes good?

I believe that bringing about an ideal world—or at least moving closer to that world—requires that the love of God dwell in people's hearts, and I believe that requires conversion, i.e., an abiding commitment to gospel principles. I testify that is true; the Spirit bears witness to my mind and heart that this is true; and to the extent that this is what 4 Nephi is trying to say, 4 Nephi communicates the mind and will of God.

I don't believe that everyone has to belong to the same church or the same religion in order for that conversion to occur. Believing that would require me to sign onto a dualistic worldview that says: only in this one religion, or this one church, can people experience bona fide regeneration through the Spirit. There are lots of people today who call themselves "orthodox Christians" who believe precisely this, though some have been sufficiently influenced by pluralist values that they want to nuance the claim somewhat. There are plenty of Mormons who believe a version of this: ask your Sunday School class what the difference is between people outside the Church feeling the Spirit on occasion and members of the Church having the gift of the Holy Ghost, and you'll quickly uncover the attitudes I'm talking about. And those attitudes are there in part because the Book of Mormon itself preaches this kind of dualistic worldview. Now, within just a few years of the publication of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith's preaching will begin to open up possibilities for a less dualistic worldview—to recognize God, the Spirit, revelation, etc., operating in people's lives outside this one church, even to grant certain possibilities for salvation outside this one church. But those possibilities are still constrained within an insistence that everyone ultimately ought to belong to our church.

I don't believe that. When I recognize the good in other people's lives, when I see the amazing commitments to service and sacrifice and justice and love lived out by people in a variety of religious traditions—or in non-religious traditions—then doctrines that insist that ultimately those people's goodness isn't the real thing, that it needs to jump through certain administrative hoops, needs to submit to the "proper authorities" and the "proper channels"—those kinds of doctrines look just niggardly. They strain at gnats and swallow camels. They're centrally preoccupied with questions of authority and a desire to draw exclusionary boundaries, and I fail to see how that is a manifestation of the love of God that overcomes disputations and makes us all one.

I know the comeback: Well, if everyone would just recognize that this is the one true church and join it and submit to God's appointed leaders, then that would put an end to disputations and would make us all one. But again, I have to say: What a niggardly vision. What an authoritarian vision. You can only be one with people who share your particular religious beliefs, or belong to the same church? That's... I'm spluttering here, groping for how to make you see what's wrong with that. Yes, I will grant you, unity means accepting shared beliefs, shared values, a shared identity. But a worldview that says, Everyone has to belong to my church before we can have an ideal world, or at least has to embrace Christianity broadly defined—that worldview has a far too narrow conception of what's necessary to unite us.

In fact, I'd say that vision of unity tries to evade the hard work of learning to love, learning to find ways to be one with, people who are different from us in dramatic respects. It's a vision that restricts the transforming power of God's love. The biggest miracle to me, the greatest accomplishment, would not be a world where everyone had joined the LDS Church, or where everyone had at least become Christian. It would be a world where Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and atheists came together to institute the regime—the "kingdom"—of justice and peace and unity and freedom and economic equality that 4 Nephi envisions. That would be a world where love abounded, because it would be a world where people were doing the harder work of loving and forging unity with people who don't already belong to your narrowly defined group: your tribe, your church, your religion.

I have no illusions about the fact that the vision I'm trying to articulate here is exclusionary in its way. I've said I want forms of liberal religion to triumph over the various fundamentalisms. Learning how to love fundamentalists would be a task even harder than the ecumenical project I'm envisioning here. It's a challenge I'm not sure I'm up to at the moment, though it's one I believe God will eventually require of me.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

To Be Straight with You

Then you will return and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not. (3 Nephi 24:18)
That may be as close as I get today to engaging directly with the week's reading. There were a number of things that stood out to me from these chapters (3 Nephi 22-26) that I thought I might share in this week's post. But last night I had an experience that I need to reflect on.

Last night I went with one of my professors and a couple of other graduate students from my department to a performance by a British dance troupe (if that's the right word) called DV8. The performance, titled "To Be Straight with You," was billed as "a poetic but unflinching exploration of tolerance, intolerance, religion and sexuality." I tend to approach the contemporary arts with low expectations, and I have virtually no exposure to contemporary dance; so I went expecting something that was conceptually provocative—probably verging on gimmicky—but not likely to move me aesthetically.

The performance was much, much more engaging than I'd expected, and I'm very grateful I had the chance to see it. Basically, the troupe conducted hours of interviews with people in England—from big-name gay activists to people on the street—regarding their views on homosexuality, which often ended up involving religion. Many of the people they interviewed were from non-white immigrant communities. The troupe then plays what I presume are recordings from the interview, or in some cases the performers recite sustained quotations as monologues—and they dance to them, sometimes accompanied by impressive computerized special effects.

I'm not explaining this well (and the show's online trailer doesn't give you a good sense either, unfortunately). But the point I'm trying to get to is that the show was very enjoyable as an aesthetic experience—I would jump at a chance to see it again—but also very frightening in terms of what it conveyed about religious hostility toward gay/lesbian/bisexual/queer people. There were stories about people being beaten, stabbed, murdered by mobs—and these stories were taking place in Britain or in former British colonies like Jamaica. Muslims and Christians were the principal sources of the hostility. The impression the show conveyed is that fundamentalist Muslims would like to eliminate homosexuals by killing them while fundamentalist Christians want to accomplish the same end through therapy or exorcism.

Now I could launch into an argument on behalf of a more nuanced representation of Christian and Islamic attitudes toward homosexuality. (They don't all hate gay people, etc.) But the performance gave voice to truths, and I want to let those truths have their say. By the end of the show, I was thinking about the writing I've done on gay Mormon issues, and how in scholarly contexts I've made a point of divorcing my work from activist agendas in the name of critical understanding. After watching "To Be Straight with You," that pose of detachment feels icky. It feels like a betrayal, like I'm refusing to use my gifts and my voice to do something on behalf of people who are suffering. I come away feeling like: If I want my scholarship to be consecrated, doesn't it have to be activist?

And the show left me feeling vulnerable—like all the gains that have been made toward gay/lesbian equality in the modern West could be undone. That within my lifetime I could end up living under the same threat of violence that gay/lesbian people are currently living in places like Iraq, or Nigeria, or evidently in certain neighborhoods of London. Maybe it's an exaggerated concern. God knows I hope it is. But in any case, it's a selfish concern. Whether I'm in danger of that kind of violence in my future or not, there are people who are living it now. And that's what matters at that moment. That violence has to end.

The world needs a revival of liberal religion. Liberals in religious traditions need to fight conservatism and fundamentalism within those traditions. The problem, of course, is that "fight" is not a preferred liberal metaphor. But when you're faced with something like anti-gay violence, I don't know how else to frame the necessary response. Fundamentalism has declared war, and now we have somehow to defend ourselves—or rather, we have to defend those whom fundamentalists want to victimize.

Or, okay, here's a different frame. Liberal religion needs to missionize more assertively. It needs to convert the world. It needs to win souls away from the false religion of fundamentalism. At one point in "To Be Straight with You," projected graphics are superimposed onto a performer so that it looks like he's standing inside a globe, which he then spins around to map gay violence worldwide. By the time he's done, Europe, North America, and Australia have been painted green because they grant relative degrees of legal protection and equality to gay/lesbian people, while vast swaths of the global South, especially the Islamic world, are in red. So now think Daniel's vision: the green needs to roll forth like a stone cut from the mountain without hands until it fills the earth.

Mormonism teaches me to trust in a millennial vision. For me, at this particular moment, that means: Liberal religion can flood the earth. Anti-gay violence can be abolished. God wills it. God calls us, with the sound of a trump, by the raising of an ensign, to join him in working to make it happen. Are we listening?

The Mormon millennial vision involves visions of judgment poured out on the wicked. That part usually makes my liberal sensitivities squirm. But then, confronted with violent fundamentalisms I would not hesitate to call false religions, I find that those visions of judgment speak to me after all. I'm a liberal, not a radical, so I feel guilty about the fact that those visions speak to me. But if there's a context in which words like the following become truth, this is one of them:
No weapon formed against you will prosper; every tongue that reviles against you in judgment, you will condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, says the Lord. (3 Nephi 22:17)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

3 Nephi 16, 20-21: On gathering

The Sunday School curriculum treats the chapters I read for this week as a unit because they have to do with the gathering of Israel. The appearance of the Book of Mormon itself is presented here as the initiating event—the catalyst—for the gathering, which includes a scenario in which the gospel goes from the Gentiles to the Lamanites, who then rise up and overthrow their Gentile oppressors (all except those who have been numbered among the house of Israel) and build "a New Jerusalem," where Christ will be in the midst of his people (20:22).

Now, I don't read the Book of Mormon as a literal preview of the future anymore than I read it as a literal record of the past. But the gathering—as theme, as dream, as icon—is fundamental to Mormonism, at least during the nineteenth century and even through the twentieth, albeit it gets somewhat metaphorized or postponed (becoming a prophecy for the future rather than, as it was for 19th-century Mormons, an ongoing reality). So I feel I need to sit under this word, as the Calvinists say. I need to listen. I need to figure out why this idea of the gathering was so important to my forebears in this tradition and what the Spirit wants me to learn from it—to do with it—today.

So, some thoughts:

First, the politics of these chapters regarding America's indigenous peoples are far from perfectly PC, but rather striking when you consider the historical context. The thrust of these prophesies is to assert indigenous peoples' rights to the land. Yes, the prophesies also legitimate European conquest (the natives needed to be punished for their sins)—but in the end, God helps the natives violently reclaim their land. The only Gentiles who continue to have a legitimate place in America are those who have been adopted into the indigenous peoples. Considering that the Book of Mormon was published around the same time that the Jackson administration was launching a policy of Indian removal that forcibly relocated most surviving Native Americans west of the Mississippi—in that context, these chapters offer a radical take on native rights. It's a take so radical, in fact, that I can't sign onto it. My politics aren't that leftist. Mormon philosopher Dennis Potter has recently asked whether the Book of Mormon can be used to promote Native American liberation: I assume he has these chapters in mind.

Second—and this will probably feel ludicrously "watered down" compared to what I was just talking about, but I'm just following the mainstream of 20th-century Mormon discourse on this one—the theme of the gathering is important because it's one of the main sources of the imagery or the language that Mormons use to describe their contribution to God's work. I may not be able to relate so much directly anymore to hymns like "Ye Elders of Israel" (about going out and bringing scattered Israel home); but I can certainly relate to the desire to be an instrument for carrying out God's purposes, building up God's kingdom, bringing to pass God's millennial dream, etc., which is what "Ye Elders of Israel" is about when you pull back a level or two of abstraction.

And in fact, borrowing from the work of Armand Mauss, I'm not so sure that orthodox Mormons relate so directly or literally anymore to imagery of the gathering. The emphasis certainly isn't on gathering to the Intermountain West anymore, as it was when "Ye Elders of Israel" was written. Instead the gathering has become metaphorized or spiritualized. Now people gather to Zion by building up the stakes of Zion throughout the world; and even more importantly, Church discourse now emphasizes gathering in the sense of gathering, or coming, to Christ. The equation "gathering of Israel = come to Christ" is at work in these chapters from 3 Nephi, though these chapters are primarily interested in painting for us a picture of the left side of the equation; contemporary Church discourse shifts the primary focus of our attention to the right side of the equation. And I have no problem with that.

Let me try to get more concrete here about the significance of "gathering" for me. This weekend, Latter-day Saints are gathering for General Conference. For some, that will mean a literal gathering in the Conference Center—and the huge investment the Church made in that building attests to how important physical gatherings remain for LDS religious experience. Others will gather to meetinghouses where satellite technology will make them an extension of the gathering in Salt Lake. Others will gather in an even more tenuous sense by watching Conference on TV in their homes.

I'm not part of that gathering. For one thing, I've been formally expelled from the gathering community (though they'd be happy to have me back on their terms). But I'm ambivalent about that kind of gathering in the first place. The sense of connection to a larger church—to home—was very important to me as a missionary when we would gather for General Conference. But looking now at the masses of people gathered to listen obediently to their adored (male, aging) leaders, I find the staging uncomfortably proto-fascist in overtones. In fairness, I should perhaps add that I find "uncomfortably proto-fascist overtones" in massive sporting events or in the huge rallies that accompanied the recent Democratic and Republican national conventions. Anything that smacks of herd mentality instinctively makes me want to pull back. Even when I was active in the Church, I don’t think I experienced, or placed much value on, the sense of belonging and . . . is it security? . . . that most Mormons seem to derive from their participation in the Church community. I’m stand-offish by temperament. It’s a vice, certainly—the vice of pride—though I also act on the faith that it can be a gift if it helps me reflect critically on the community in salutary ways.

In any case, this stand-offishness means that I’ve been comfortable with my status as “Mormon in exile,” as an Episcopal priest I used to work with once put it. I like being scattered in that sense. And so the scriptures’ promise of gathering is actually something of a challenge for me. God’s work, the scriptures tell me, is to bring people together. Christ becomes present—Christ’s power is made manifest—in the midst of a gathered people.

I paused for a while after writing that sentence, deciding whether to pursue that thought. And I decided not to. The Spirit’s pushing me somewhere I want to reflect on more before I say anything more about it in the blogosphere. So I’m going to change the subject a bit. This coming week is my parents’ wedding anniversary. That date is also the anniversary of the first time I ever participated in organized gay life: a talent show held as part of the University of Utah’s GLBT Awareness Week during my first year as a graduate student there. I suspect that the coincidence with my parents’ wedding anniversary makes the talent show more of a dramatic threshold in my memory than it would be otherwise, but I take that date as the beginning of my coming out as a gay man.

There’s a kind of gathering in my life: coming out—or alternatively, coming in—from the exile of the closet, connecting with other gay/lesbian people, claiming membership in a community. In the end, I’m rather stand-offish in that community as well. For the fifth year in a row, I’ve not felt motivated to participate in our local Gay Pride events. Hugo and I have a handful of gay friends, but we’re not really plugged into the local gay community—wherever that is—and we don’t even go out of our way to socialize that much with other gay couples at the Episcopal church we attend. And we don’t emulate standard images of gay life or gay style—I often find myself in situations where I joke, “We’re not that kind of gay.” But we still claim membership in a thing called the gay community: we claim them as our people, and that’s crucial to our identity. In an analogous way, I claim membership in a broadly defined Mormon community: the Mormons are my people (whether they want me or not), and that’s crucial to my identity. For the moment, that’s as closely gathered as I want to be.